Interview with Helen Osborne
Recognized as an expert in health literacy, Helen Osborne M.Ed., OTR/L helps health professionals communicate in ways patients and their families can understand. She does so through a range of consulting, training, and writing services.
Helen is president of her own business, Health Literacy Consulting, based in Natick, Massachusetts. She is also the founding director of Health Literacy Month – a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the importance of understandable health information. In addition, Helen produces and hosts the podcast series, Health Literacy Out Loud.
Helen brings clinical experience, educational training, and patient perspective to all her work. She gives health literacy presentations across the U.S. and Canada. She also serves as a plain language writer/editor on numerous consumer projects. Several of these have won Plain Language awards from the National Institute for Health.
For the past 10 years, Helen has been a columnist for the Boston Globe Media’s On Call magazine, writing about patient education and health care communication. She is the author of several books including the award-winning Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message which is considered by many as the most important health literacy reference today. To learn more about Helen’s work and consulting services, please visit the Health Literacy Consulting website at www.healthliteracy.com.
Q & A with Helen Osborne
- What is your definition of health literacy? To me, health literacy is about mutual understanding. Health literacy happens when patients (or anyone on the receiving end of health communication) and providers (anyone on the giving end) truly understand one another.
- What general factors in today’s economy do you see impacting health literacy? I sometimes am amazed at the amount of attention health literacy is getting today. When I first heard about health literacy 15 years ago, I remember well the quizzical looks I’d get when using this term. To me, health literacy is more important now than ever before. Here are some reasons why:
- There is an abundance of health information available from the Internet, television, and newspapers or magazines. The lay public needs to know how to sort through all this to find information that is accurate, personally-relevant, and doable.
- Many people, especially of those of younger generations, see themselves as healthcare consumers and not just passive recipients of care. To fully engage as “healthcare partners,” patients and families need to fully understand what they need to do, how to do it, and why this is important.
- For economic as well as other reasons, the reality is that most medical encounters are shorter than ever. Patients may still be very sick and in need of care when they leave the doctor’s office or hospital. Health literacy can help them take appropriate action.
- How do you see social media (such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasts, etc.) impacting health communication? I see tremendous potential for teaching, learning, and building community with multi-media. For instance, someone who doesn’t read (has trouble reading or prefers not to) can now learn about health by watching videos or listening to podcasts. But I also see the potential for people to feel overwhelmed by all the new options. I was just talking with a colleague about my age. We laughed about our fumbling efforts to figure out Twitter.
- Your book Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message provides valuable insight into key tips and strategies for effective health communication. What advice do you have for individuals interested in getting started in a career in health communication? I often talk about 8 ways to improve health communication. They are:
- Know your audience in general
- Tailor communication in specific
- Create a welcoming and supportive environment
- Communicate in whatever ways work
- Confirm understanding
- Offer ways to learn more
- Weight the ethics of simplicity
- Collaborate for good communication
You can find a lot more information about specific communication strategies along with these more general principles in my book Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message.