Why is Health Literacy Important to Everyone?

This week, we focused on communicating our research to those outside our field. To accomplish this, one must understand the process of narrowing a research project that leads to the purpose and significance. Personally, I learn better when I take information from the readings and make flowcharts like the one below. The first step is to find a problem that makes people unhappy because it affects someone’s time, money, respect, security, pain, or life. My practical problem is patients with head and neck cancer present with disease that have spread beyond the primary tumor requiring a combination of treatments leading to toxicities that affect quality of life, function of the head and neck area, and one’s appearance. The practical problem motivates a researcher to ask a research question. I chose to ask, what factors do patients possess that makes them more susceptible to worse outcomes? From there, a researcher combs through the literature to identify a specific research problem to address a gap in knowledge or misunderstanding. When reviewing the literature, most studies identified clinical factors that lead to patients seeking emergency care for their treatment-related toxicities. There was limited information about social determinants of health like health literacy so, my research problem is to find out the effect health literacy has on unplanned hospitalizations and emergency room visits for patients with head and neck cancer undergoing radiation therapy. Once the problem has been identified, the purpose statement guides the process for solving the problem. By conducting a chart review of patients seen at the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic, my project will aim to determine the rate and cause of hospital utilization and the effect health literacy has on hospital utilization. The double-sided arrows between the purpose statement, significance statement, and data collection/analysis show how the researcher can move back and forth refining these factors as the research progresses. Ultimately, the thesis statement will answer the practical problem by combining purpose, significance, and data analysis. Now that I have this framework to describe my research, I can more effectively explain it to others.

While my project seems very specific, everyone interacts with the healthcare system and health literacy plays a factor at each interaction. One effective strategy we discussed in class was using analogies related to everyday situation because once people see how common this problem is, they understand why it is important to solve it. In my analogy I asked my classmates to consider a time when they visited another region of the US with its own accents and meanings for words. For example, if a person from Boston was in Pittsburgh trying to find Point Park, they might ask someone where the water fountain is. A person native to Pittsburgh would think they were looking for a machine that would fill up their water bottle, but the person from Boston would be confused when they were directed to a “bubbler”, not the fountain at Point Park. Now imagine the consequences if information about your quality of life after cancer treatment was getting misinterpreted and the devastating effect it can have on a patient with inadequate health literacy. In healthcare, doctors and patients are speaking the same language, but information can be misunderstood and lead the patient down the wrong path.

We’ve all had those moments where we are so passionate about something and when we try to explain it to someone they stare at us like this! Using analogies can help avoid these blank stares.

Unfortunately, it is rare to find someone who hasn’t had a personal experience with cancer. While someone may not have had a known someone with head and neck cancer, all cancer patients undergo toxic treatments that affect their future. I may be initially associating health literacy to head and neck cancer patients, but it may have implications for all cancer patients. My audience can relate what I am describing to the person they know who went through cancer treatment, thus emphasizing the importance.

My current professional goal, as I described in my introductory post, is to work as a registered nurse and ultimately further my education to become a nurse practitioner. As a nursing student, I have interacted with multiple health disciplines like physical therapists, dieticians, occupational therapists, researchers, and doctors, but also individuals vital to the infrastructure of the hospital like custodial workers, Information technology assistants, food services, and many more. The care of a patient is influenced by every person working in a hospital, not just the nurses who monitor them. For my patients to have the best care, collaboration between disciplines is key. Without such coordinated care, patients will have suboptimal outcomes.

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