Health Literacy Lesson: Education Does Not Equal Understanding

detail from painting, Changes and Communications, by Alfred Julio Jensen, photo by Heidi Splete

detail from painting, Changes and Communications, by Alfred Julio Jensen, photo by Heidi Splete

From the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md.

This week I participated in a journalism fellowship at the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, and communication was a recurring pattern. The NLM is taking several steps to improve how it communicates medical information to the public, with online initiatives including the consumer-oriented Medline Plus database and the Genetics Home Reference. But not everyone has online access, obviously. Dr. Donald A.B. Lindberg, NLM director, discussed the federal government’s investment–despite the high cost of printing–in producing NIH MedlinePlus, a magazine distributed free of charge to doctors’ offices across the U.S. as a way to get more medical information to patients. Health literacy isn’t only a function of whether you own a computer, though. Dr. Lindberg also commented that many brilliant individuals don’t automatically understand what’s under their skin.

Part of the goal of the fellowship was to learn about tools that the NLM has to help journalists communicate more effectively with our readers, and I had another reminder that education does not always equal understanding. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that he had found it challenging to clearly communicate the details of the current pandemic H1N1 influenza virus to a group of parents whose children attend private schools in Washington, D.C. They are, he said, some of the most educated parents in the country.

Our physician readers face communication challenges every day as they try to help their patients get well and stay well. Our challenge is to give them the most useful and understandable information we can, so they can pass it on.

—Heidi Splete (on Twitter @hsplete)
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