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Center for Health Literacy Promotion Blog

Health Literacy & Maternal Health Literacy: What’s the difference?

Start with measurement
What we measure and how we measure it matters because it determines what we find out about what works and what’s worth doing and who should do it.* Measurement remains the most crucial issue for health literacy research; because we need to find out what works for whom,  and what’s worth doing and who should do it. 

Im especially interested in what works for mothers in the prenatal to preschool period. Because they are the foundation of personal and public health. Healthy mother… healthy baby… healthy population. What mothers learn about health and healthcare during pregnancy and early parenting can benefit entire families across their lifespans, and extend benefits to the healthcare, education and justice systems, and to the economy.

Health literacy focuses on patients understanding healthcare information Health literacy research assesses patients health literacy by their scores on a single administration of a reading test using medical terms. Patients are marked poor, marginal or adequate. An adequate score means you will probably not need assistance to make meaning from information  about your diagnosis or to follow treatment instructions.  If you cannot pronounce most of the words,  you are assumed to have poor health literacy and to be unable to “obtain, process and understand basic information needed to make appropriate health decisions”. 

What we find out from health literacy-reading test scores is that almost everybody has limited medical vocabulary and difficulty making sense of information from the healthcaresystem. We find out that information needs to be simplified and its delivery needs to beimproved. We find that patients score better when we give them better information andconclude that what’s worth doing is improving information and its delivery.  Since most studies originate in academic medical centers, it is not surprising that studies position health professionals as the keepers and dispensers of health and medical knowledge and so it falls to them to reduce the risk and mitigate the negative impacts of low [health] literacy on patients and the system.

Maternal health literacy focuses on parents using information for health Maternal health literacy research assesses periodically what parents do with information, how they integrate it into their lives and households. Changes in parent’s health- and healthcare-related actions, practices and behaviors provide evidence of progress (or regression) in developing the knowledge and social and cognitive skills needed to participate in healthcare and preventive practices. This approach captures effects of systems efforts to improve information as well as public health efforts to directly assist parents to make meaning from the information and apply it in real life.

By monitoring what parents actually do for health with the information available to them, wefind out that direct assistance to use information and services for health is most beneficial to lower functioning parents, while also benefitting higher functioning parents. We find that social workers, parent educators, health educators, and trained paraprofessionals working in homes and communities can enable parents to better manage family health and healthcare, even with the added challenges of poverty, limited education and limited English proficiency. 

Both approaches are needed    
The dominant clinical approach to patient’s health literacy and the public health approach to maternal health literacy are complementary rather than exclusive. Patients and parents need quality information, accessible services, and assistance to use them effectively.

*    lisabeth schorr Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America.   Read this book!

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