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How to use print materials to promote maternal health literacy

Adults learn in order to solve a problem they have now. Pregnancy and early parenting present many new problems, along with new motivation to seek information. That makes the prenatal to preschool period the most effective time to promote maternal health literacy.
Promoting maternal health literacy means empowering mothers to better manage personal and child health and healthcare.  Print information is a useful tool to do that. But not just any information. And not just handing it to her.
The first step toward health literacy is learning to obtain information that is reliable, understandable and actionable. Information that get’s read and shared and saved is also brief, attractive, encouraging and conversational. Progress toward health literacy can start with skillfully crafted materials.
Give no info until it is requested.
A rule of health literacy promotion is that the learner must be in charge of the learning. The corollary is, give no information until it is requested.  Then give the just essentials. Select content that is easy to read and brief. Too much information, or info that exceeds the learner’s skills, is disempowering. It leaves the recipient feeling discouraged and overwhelmed, and still uninformed.
Providing information that is not requested - delivering the curriculum- makes you the expert in charge of the learning; it makes you the problem solver; it positions the mother as incapable and unreliable.  In contrast,  responding to requests for information makes you a trusted partner to the self-directed learner and problem solver.
Information that builds health literacy, not only increases knowledge. It also develops a gourmet taste for learning, builds confidence and presents opportunities for reflection, self-discovery and small, doable steps toward better self-care and healthcare. Health literacy promoting materials increase capacity to independently obtain more information from reliable sources.
For example, Beginnings Guides present free national 800 numbers to anonymously get information and assistance with topics from domestic violence to food safety to quit-smoking. The Pregnancy Guideenables  a mother to differentiate common discomforts of pregnancy from warning signs that warrant a call to her healthcare provider, and prepares her to make the call.  The new 2014 editions include a scan code to link to pre-screened online resources from a mobile device.
Beginnings Pregnancy Guide scores a Superior rating on 26 factors known to affect reading and comprehension.   See the SAM (Suitability Assessment of Materials) Review of the Guides.  Also, watch for the results of the ongoing review by 30 experts and practitioners using the new Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool (PEMAT-P) from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It rates “understandability and actionability” of information. (I’m try not to think about puppies…)
You can previewand order or reorderBeginnings Guides at

The Making of Beginnings Guides

It started as liability protection for prenatal care providers
I started developing the Pregnancy Guide in 1988. At the time over a third of obstetricians had been sued for malpractice before they finished residency. Many family physicians had stopped delivering babies as the cost of malpractice insurance became prohibitive. Around this time the Million Dollar Baby was introduced in the literature - that was the baby whose medical bills approached a million dollars before she left the hospital. One “bad baby” could wipe out an employer’s entire health insurance program.
The thinking at the time was to tell pregnant women everything there is to know about pregnancy, especially things that could go wrong, in order to avoid lawsuits. If mothers were given information, they would be informed, or uninformed by choice and therefore liable for untoward outcomes. And the research indicated that families who felt informed were more satisfied with their care and less likely to sue.
Mountains of printed material, little actionable, understandable information
I gave up on my long search for materials that I could recommend to prenatal care providers trying to respond to mandates from their professional societies and malpractice insurers to inform mothers on a long list of topics related to birth outcomes. I had found and reviewed mountains  of pregnancy information. There were thick books that seemed intent on giving mothers facts and scaring them into compliance. There were mounds of brochures, all on single topics. These answered a specific question, and so were useful only to those who knew what to ask and had sufficient reading skill to make meaning from the jargon and medical facts.
Research defines key health behavior messages
In 1989 the landmark document Caring for Our Future: The Content of Prenatal Care was published. It presented the first comprehensive guidelines for what defines a minimal quality prenatal care service. It called for more visits in early pregnancy to deliver the health promotion content of prenatal care. It detailed health behavior messages to be discussed at each visit. Subsequently, research demonstrated direct links between the recommended health behavior messages and outcomes, particularly low birth weight.
Health promotion content of prenatal care rarely delivered
 But providers said it is just not feasible to keep track of each woman’s knowledge and address their health behaviors and still meet production requirements. They were -are- not trained to support behavior change. The typical prenatal visit included about 7 minutes with the doctor and focused on screening and intervention. The health promotion content of care was addressed by recommendations to attend childbirth classes, which occurred too late in pregnancy to have any impact on outcomes and were attended primarily by college-educated women.
Beginnings Pregnancy Guide introduces staged learning, conversations for health
And so in late 1989 I published Beginnings: A Practical Guide through Your Pregnancy. It was designed to protect obstetricians from liability, and at the same time to serve mothers by providing easy-to-read, plain language actionable information on what women across cultures want to know about pregnancy. It put the health promotion content of prenatal care into text that reads like the encouraging conversations a caring, articulate, culturally competent obstetrician who was up on the research would have with each pregnant woman and her partner, if time and economics allowed. I followed Pulitzer’s mandate to provide information that is “brief so they will read it, clear so they will appreciate it, picturesque so they will remember it, and accurate so they will be guided by its light.”
Information alone is rarely enough to influence health behavior
I soon learned that simple information giving is rarely enough to influence behavior. People need assistance to make personal meaning from information and act on it in context. Information-givers need training -and time- to use materials effectively for teaching and learning. The OBs said, rightly, I think, that health education is not their job. And so the health promotion content of prenatal care fell to home visitors serving Medicaid populations, and health plans providing online and print information to the privately insured. (About 2-4% of mothers were attended by midwives who embrace pregnancy as a high state of health and focus on the health promotion aspects of pregnancy.)
Designed for mothers, and health literacy promotion
From 1990 on, Beginnings Pregnancy Guide has been designed for mothers, rather than providers. Since 1993 when the first article on health literacy appeared in the medical literature, it has been a laboratory for materials that promote health literacy.
Who uses Beginnings Guides
Beginnings Pregnancy Guide is now most frequently used by home visitors, parent educators, family support workers and case managers to promote maternal child health and maternal health literacy. There is training, a users manual, and an evidence base. It is earns high satisfaction ratings from both college educated and under educated mothers and their families.
The new updated 9th! edition is just off the press. In English and Spanish. Take a look.

The 7th Attribute - Navigation Assistance

“Health literate health care organizations design health care facilities with features that help people find their way.”
My Dad  -he’s 86 - was admitted to the hospital last Thursday with chest pains. My mother and sister sat with him that night. He woke often, agitated and not knowing where he was,  determined to get out of bed. Friday morning, mom was exhausted, so I took over the vigil. Dad had another difficult night that he will not remember, but I will. On one of his many awakenings, he had removed his gown and ripped off all the electrodes in the seconds it took me to get to his side. It was a total role reversal with me telling my father he had to stay in bed.
About 4AM, he finally settled into a sound sleep. At 5AM, I let the nurses know i was going to get some air and would be back shortly.  I exited the main entrance, breathed deeply, walked across the icy parking lot and back to the door. It was locked.
Seeking the Emergency entrance
A sign board visible only from outside read “Exit Only - Enter at Emergency Department”.  But there was no indication where the Emergency entrance is located. I walked more than a block in one direction until I reached what looked like the the maintenance buildings, thinking, “It can’t be this far; there must be lights.”  I retraced my steps back to the main entrance starting to feel the below-freezing temperature and to worry about my safety. I  proceeded in the other direction.  I found another entrance, with the same sign.  I kept going and found a third entrance, with the same sign. This one had an arrow, but it pointed into a dark space between buildings - no ER in sight.
The locked doors seemed an obvious and important security measure.
But my security was at risk wandering around in the dark and cold. I could easily read and understand the sign. But it was not an aid to navigation.  I decided to wait it out in my car, but the keys were in the building.
 Lucky for me, before long, I  encountered two nurses coming in for early morning surgeries. They had a card key and let me in the third door. when I promised not to tell.  They said, “The ER is waaaay down that way”. One of them started to lead me there. It took a bit to explain I did not want to go there, I only needed to get in the building. 
Easy to be more health literate
This hospital would easily become a more health literate organization by improving its signage to include ‘navigation assistance”. And by making the Exit only”  signs visible from inside so they can be seen on the way out.  Then the nurses would not have had to take surgery-prep time to help me.  And there would be less risk of incidents that no one wants to happen. As a former hospital public relations officer, I know all sorts of untoward events might have occurred out there in the parking lot.
This hospital would score well on most of the Ten Attributes.  Perhaps this is a case of assuming that “everyone knows” where the Emergency entrance is, and that  all other doors are locked during certain hours.  But everyone does not know. And the ED needs to be easy to find. I checked again in daylight and still saw no signs for the ED, except from the road.
Pretend you are from Mars, and go look at your signage. Can you see it where  you might need it.  Does it tell you how to get where you need to be?
 PS Dad is home, recovering well. I am grateful for good care. Nurses rock.

CORRECTION: The discussion paper posted here yesterday-

CORRECTION: The discussion paper posted here yesterday- Health Literacy as an Essential Component to Achieving Excellent Patient Outcomes -  was not commissioned by the IOM as I stated.. It was announced in the IOM newsletter. As indicated in the note accompanying the paper “The views expressed in discussion papers are those of the authors and not necessarily of the authors’ organizations or of the IOM. Discussion papers are intended to help inform and stimulate discussion. They have not been subjected to the review procedures of the IOM and are not reports of the IOM or of the National Research Council.”

New IOM Discussion Paper on Health Literacy

This discussion paper commissioned by the IOM Roundtable on Health Literacy was released yesterday. I always watch for these papers by thought leaders in the field to see the evolution of health literacy concept, measurement and intervention. 
I am quite disappointed this time.  
One statement of fact jumped out at me right away. The  paper lists an increase in the fertility rate among demographic trends behind the increasing size and diversity of the population. But, according to the CDC the US fertility rate is at an all time low. Births declined by 10% last year and the Census Bureau reports population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in decades.  The authors are correct that diversity continues to increase. Pew reports the number of immigrants in the country doubled to 46 million between 1990 and 2013. (But the Pew Hispanic Center announced in April 2012 that immigration from Mexico has stopped and perhaps even reversed.) Diversity of cultures and language is indeed a challenge for the healthcare system that adds urgency to health literacy issues.
The concept of health literacy presented in the paper seems confused. First health literacy is presented as a cognitive deficit that leaves patients  “unable to understand and act on health information”, placing the problem in patients and assuming it is intractable, therefore requiring clinicians to over come or manage the problem. The approach is necessarily information-centered and provider-centered, not patient-centered.  
The authors also note that WHO considers health literacy a personal and community asset, but seem not to notice this is contrary to their discussion focused on low health literacy as a risk to patients and the system.  Recommended universal precautions are not  sufficiently “on the ground” to change practice and represent long held heath education principles (e.g. educate using plain language, do a learning needs assessment).There is an implied assumption that universal precautions, overseen by a new office in healthcare organizations, is the whole solution. These precautions are common sense, but they are insufficient to address true cognitive impairment in the elderly population, or to overcome what Doak Doak and Root described as gaps in logic, language and experience, the origin of provider/patient communication problems with both native and foreign-born patients.
The authors suggest that efforts to develop an organization’s employees' health literacy skills  (knowledge of negative impacts of low health literacy in patients, employee-employee communication) can "empower communities to be active partners in their care.”  This is faulty thinking.  Establishing the attitude that  patients are incapable of understanding and acting on information, and so unable to learn and do what is needed to cope, recover, and improve health, disempowers patients and providers alike, makes patients unnecessarily dependent on professionals, and perpetuates the problem. The authors close with a call for "trusted partnerships” between providers and patients; that requires providers to trust patients.   As long as we say that what we need to make the healthcare system work is a smarter patient, we are stuck. 
One more thing: Americans spend about one hour per year in a clinical setting. What about health literacy in the other 8764 hours?

MLK Day of Service

Today volunteers are out all over Seattle and King County. It's MLK Day, a national Day of Service in memory of Dr King and his teaching that “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?”
My friend and co-author Liz Moore (aka the data whisperer) and I worked with folks fromCityFruit. Since 2008 this group has been promoting cultivation of urban fruit to nourish people, build comity and protect the climate. Last year they tended, harvested and distributed 6500 pounds of fruit grown on trees in Seattle city parks.  Liz and I worked on a hillside up behind the Amy Yee Tennis Center is south Seattle. It turns out there are 30 some  very mature long neglected apple and pear trees there, perhaps a former orchard.  City Fruit's 5 year plan includes rescuing the trees from ivy, blackberry and underbrush, restoring them to productivity, and sharing the harvest with neighbors and local food banks, and selling some to Seattle restaurants to sustain the operation.  Liz and I rescued three apple trees nearly strangled by ivy and blackberry. And we learned something about our city, met some of our fellow citizens and left the world a little better place. Thanks, Dr. King,  for the inspiration and leadership. Thanks to  UW and United Way of King Countyfor organizing the day of service. Thanks to all who serve, and all who accept service. ss

Reflection on 2013: Health Literacy Promotion Goes Global, Beginnings Guides Renewed

New  2014 Editions
If you have not see the new Beginnings Pregnancy Guide, and the new Beginnings Guia para Embarrazo, and the new Beginnings Parents Guide, take a look!  Great new photos.  All content checked and updated.  A scan code instantly links your mobile device to new sections of direct from the Guides. For parents there are Pregnancy Resources and Parents Resources that we have investigated and found to be reliable, easy to use and free of advertising. You service providers will find lots of useful tools in the Resources for Beginnings Users section.  Also in 2013, we closed the warehouse so now all our printing, inventory management and fulfillment are in one place, at ColorGraphics Seattle. If you distribute Beginnings by mail, we can print your envelopes, address, stuff
and mail them and manage returns. What a Special Edition with program specific content and your program name on it? We can do that, too.
Speaking of the websites had 125,000 visitors in 2013. 
had 50,000 visitors.  2000-4000 of you read the blogs each month. And we have
900 Twitter followers.
Most read blogs
Notes from the Field CenteringPregnancy, Promoting Maternal Health Literacy“Health Illiteracy” is Not a Disease
Promoting Health Literacy Nationally & Internationally
Cape Town, South Africa April 17-19, 2013
I got to keynote the first conference on Building Children’s Nursing for Africa organized by Univeristy of Cape Town School of Nursing and Red Cross Children’s Hospital. My theme:empowering mothers for health. Now I am delighted to be serving as a guest editor with Prof. Minette Cootzee for a special edition of South Africa’s national nursing journal Curation is featuring 12 articles from the conference.
Vancouver, BC, Canada May 1-4, 2013
I participated in an invitational international workshop that initiated a new “knowledge hub” at University of British Columbia. The consensus was that health literacy involves patient, provider and system. I argued that this formula includes the provider and the providers’context (the system) but omits the patient’s social context. View participants’ brief videos on health literacy here.
Bozeman, MT, USA  August 19-20, 2013
I got to keynote the Montana State Early Childhood Council’s first Family Support Summit.  Theme: promoting maternal health literacy through home visiting. In March 2014 I will return to MT to work with all staff of Ravelli Head Start in Hamilton, MT whose director Kristin Segall recognized at the Summit that “Health literacy is everybody’s job.”
Washington DC, October 26-28, 2013
This was a whirlwind as I presented on theParents as Teachers Health Literacy Demonstration Project at the Health Literacy Annual Research Conference, and presented a workshop with colleague April Thayer of WellPoint on the upcoming pilot project to integrate health literacy promotion into CenteringPregnancy and field test the newMaternal Health Literacy Self-Assessment.

Sydney, Australia November 26-29.
I was awarded a travel scholarship to attend University of Sydney’s conference on health literacy and participate in the second meeting of the Worldwide Universities Health Literacy Network.  I participated with a group of academics and patient representatives to plan an international collaboration on developing health literacy as a community asset. That is just getting underway.

Health Literacy Training Videos Take 2
We planned to have the free training videos produced with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine Pacific Northwest Region up on the websites in August. But we got good criticism from our reviewers and we are revising accordingly. Stay tuned.

On to 2014. I so appreciate your partnership in serving mothers, foundation of a healthy society. SS

Worldwide Universities Network Health Literacy Meeting

It was my great good fortune to attend two  International multidisciplinary meetings of Health literacy researchers, practitioners and policy makers sponsored by the Worldwide Universities Network.  I have previously reported on the   May 2012 meeting at University of Southampton, England. That meeting was dominated by Europeans and characterized by lively debate that fleshed  out  themes and urgent issues.

The second meeting  took place in late November  2013 at University of Sydney.  The location attracted the  Australian  experts and was notably influenced by the routine participation of consumer representatives in healthcare, research, policy making,  and fittingly in this meeting.  I was glad to reconnect with a number of researchers I met in Southampton.

Our purpose in Sydney was to formulate international collaborative projects.  The group of about 25 divided itself by interest area using themes that emerged from the first meeting.  Noting that project groups were forming  around research questions related to measurement, medical education, and disease-specific questions, I proposed "health promotion approach" as an alternative.  That attracted four academics and three consumer reps from Australia and the Netherlands who work with various  populations  (e.g. Lebanese, Vietnamese, Dutch, Aboriginal). We want to learn who are the "gatekeepers" of health in families and communities; how have they been identified; and how have they been or how could they be  engaged to determine what supports individual and collective health literacy.  We will necessarily start with a lit review. Stay tuned.  And put Bondi Beach, a suburb of Sydney, on your bucket list.

Maternal Health Literacy: Foundation of personal and public health

Part 1 Maternal health literacy as skills

A life skill is a collection of skills necessary for full participation in everyday life. Maternal health literacy is a life skill that mothers use to manage personal and child health and healthcare.  It has been defined as the cognitive & social skills that determine a mother’s motivation and ability to act on information in ways that improve health (Renkert and Nutbeam, 2000).
Cognitive skills are used to understand information; they include basic literacy skills, reading and numeracy (ability to use numbers). A mother might use these basic skills to learn about ear aches, and make an appointment to take her child to see a clinician. So basic literacy skills are the essential foundation for health literacy.
Social skills are used to make personal meaning from information, including speaking and listening. The mother whose child has an ear ache uses these skills when she discusses with the clinician the information on ear aches to understand why her child has them and how she might prevent them.
Reflective skills combine cognitive and social skills to think critically, make choices, formulate plans, and take action.  The mother in our example uses reflective skills when she mulls over what the doctor said, what she read, her experience of her child’s ear ache, her actions and parenting practices, and her discussion with her mother about treatment options and possible preventive measures. Some literacy scholars say that reflective skills are so essential to applying information in context that it should be classified as a basic skill. So we could say there are 4Rs: reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, and reflection.
Health literacy means empowerment (WHO 2013)
A health literate mother combines all these skills to make health related choices and transform those choice into desired action and outcomes. That is the World Bank’s definition of empowerment.  Say the mother chooses to stop putting her baby to bed with a bottle. She takes that step, and she enjoys her desired outcome, a happy ear-ache free baby. We say this mother is empowered for health. 
Her health literacy skills enable her to minimize risk, maximize protective factors, and optimize health promotion. In this way, a mother’s health literacy forms the foundation for her health and her child’s health throughout their lives.
Many factors, in addition to skills, interact to determine a woman’s maternal health literacy. More on that next time.

Notes from the Field CenteringPregnancy, Promoting Maternal Health Literacy

I’ve been in Washington DC where I co-presented a workshop at CenteringHealthcare Institute’s fourth national conference. I was drawn to this organization the first time I read their motto: Transforming care through disruptive design.
CenteringPregnancy (CP) is a rapidly spreading model of group prenatal care. Eight to 12 women with similar due dates have their prenatal visits together. Each has the usual individual health assessment with an obstetrician or midwife in the group space. Meanwhile the rest of the group engages in “self-care”; they weigh themselves, take their own blood pressures and chart the data.  They can read their own lab results and ultrasound reports. The rest of their 1.5 -2 hour appointment is dedicated to  education and support through facilitated group discussion and activities.
Reimbursement levels and processes are the same as for conventional individual prenatal care. The schedule of visits and core content follow ACOG* guidelines. 
Process trumps content
CenteringPregnancy’s founder and CEO, midwife Sharon Rising, emphasizes, “Content should not get in the way of process.” The women talk about what they want to talk about. There are games, activities and multiple ways of learning. Women test out what they've heard; they explore their cultural beliefs and share sensitive issues like violence that are only rarely discussed in traditional prenatal care. They build community and function as a support group. 
March of Dimes wants all mothers to get prenatal care in CenteringPregnancy,” says Judy Gooding, MOD’s Vice President for Signature Programs. No wonder.
She describes CP as an evidence-based program to prevent preterm birth and disparities in infant health outcomes. MOD’s  2012 Preterm Birth Report card shows the US rate at 11.7% of all births. Among women in CP the rate is 5.5%. The national low-birth-weight rate is 8.1% compared to CP’s 6.3%
CP meets the Institute of Medicine’s goals to make healthcare services safe, patient centered, equitable, timely and efficient.  Participating mothers seem to agree. There is no waiting time, no need to retell their story to strangers. They build a relationship with the provider. What they like best is being with other women.
Sharon Rising says, “Facilitation is the secret sauce.” Clinician facilitators are trained not to answer questions or instruct the group, but rather to elicit the group wisdom and listen to what drives behavior. They come to understand and appreciate the needs, beliefs, and struggles of the women and the complexity of their live. Throughout the conference there were reports of clinicians coming out of CP sessions where they completed the equivalent of 10-12 prenatal visits in 2 hours  beaming and talking in superlatives about their experience.
All this makes group prenatal care the ultimate environment for promoting maternal health literacy. I’ve been working for a year with WellPoint, the health insurance giant,  to design a pilot to test the hypothesis that CP promotes MHL as a side effect, and with facilitator awareness, tools and strategies it can be very effective.More on that next time. Meanwhile, visit
Stay tuned. ss
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