Digital literacy can make a difference in health decisions and better health outcomes
Submitted by the Erie County Department of Health
October is recognized nationally as Health Literacy Month, and a group of local agencies is coming together to boost awareness and opportunities to build digital literacy skills, especially as they relate to health and medical care.
Three organizations strongly linked to public education and addressing social determinants of health including literacy are joining with the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) and Literacy Buffalo Niagara (LBN) to build on last October’s successful awareness campaign. The Buffalo Center for Health Equity, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (BECPL) and Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center (ENAHEC) each have a strong commitment to seeing improvements in health literacy.
Social determinants of health are common denominators of health literacy and health equity. Limited health literacy contributes to entrenched health disparities for older adults, Black and brown communities, recent refugees and immigrants, those with low income or less education and people with compromised health status. The digital divide – barriers to accessing and understanding technology tools – is stark among Black, Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean adults aged 60 and older.
“We can address health literacy on two fronts,” Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein said. “First is the work to support individuals in improving literacy skills, particularly with digital information and technology tools. Second is raising awareness among health providers that a lack of literacy skills reduces a patient’s ability to understand their health status and prevent or manage health conditions.”
Locally, we know there is substantial room for improvement in Erie and Niagara counties: 24% of Blacks, 41% of Hispanics, 13% of Asians, and 25% of American Indian and Native Alaskan score at the lowest levels of health literacy, compared with 9% of white adults.
“There is research that demonstrates how individual-level interventions, including the one-on-one tutoring delivered by Literacy Buffalo Niagara, works to increase health literacy and reduce health disparities,” Literacy Buffalo Niagara Executive Director Tara Schafer said.
Erie Niagara AHEC Interim Executive Director Brittany Tranello said, “This month is an opportunity to reach out to older family members, neighbors and people in your social circle who may struggle with digital literacy and access. ‘Making a telemedicine appointment’ or ‘googling your diagnosis’ might be easy for people who are comfortable with technology and with written and verbal English skills, but for many these are insurmountable tasks and barriers to accessing information and receiving health care.”
Ebony White, community health engagement manager at the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, said, “Health literacy knowledge equips communities with the skills to interface effectively with health care in a meaningful way. It provides transformation that improves access versus the transactional model that perpetuates the disproportionate health disparities in communities of color. Application of knowledge is the key to changing the trajectory of our region.”
BECPL Assistant Deputy Director Samantha Purpora said, “The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library's role in promoting digital literacy skills is more important than ever. The internet is a tremendous resource for health information, but can be overwhelming. Our libraries help community members navigate and evaluate the vast health information resources on a daily basis. Participating in this training is another way we can assist in bridging the digital health literacy divide.”
Literacy Buffalo Niagara will hold a free “Digi-Skills” workshop on Wednesday, Oct. 18, from 1-3 p.m. at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library – Central Library (1 Lafayette Square, downtown Buffalo). This event is open to the public and designed for adults looking to improve their computer and digital literacy skills. The full “Digi-Skills” program reviews how to use a computer, navigate the internet, participate in telehealth appointments, schedule doctors’ appointments in health care portals, search for jobs online, create an email account, use Microsoft Word and more.
This working group of five agencies plans to continue its collaborative work to promote health literacy activities throughout the year. Efforts would extend outreach and resources to individuals whose primary language is not English, and those who are looking to improve their ability to read, write, speak and understand English. The group also intends to educate health care providers in referring patients to literacy resources and using plain language communications.
Erie County Department of Health, Health Literacy: www.erie.gov/healthliteracy
•Resources for writing with plain language and other best practices for low literacy audiences.
Literacy Buffalo Niagara (LBN): www.literacybuffalo.org
•Accepting adult learners and recruiting volunteer tutors to work one-on-one with adults who need support and literacy skills development. Call 716-876-8991 to become a student or tutor.
Buffalo Center for Health Equity: www.buffalohealthequity.org
•BCHE serves as a mechanism to create equity in health outcomes that are influenced by the conditions into which people are born, and in which they develop, live, work, recreate and worship.
Buffalo and Erie County Public Library: www.buffalolib.org
•Support local libraries and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. All residents – including low-literacy residents – rely on public libraries for reading material at all reading levels and tutoring spaces.
Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center (ENAHEC): www.erieniagaraahec.org
•ENAHEC transforms and creates a diverse health workforce by educating, exposing and connecting future and current health professionals to underserved and underrepresented communities in Erie and Niagara counties.