When it comes to literacy, “health” is not the first word that comes to mind. Oftentimes, literacy is associated solely with education in the academic sense, discarding the notion of literacy for health. In a nation where 81 percent of patients over age 60 cannot read or understand basic materials such as prescriptions labels, health literacy has become imperative in saving the lives of countless individuals.
Health literacy is the ability to read, understand and act on health information. Health literacy is a stronger indicator of health than income, age and race (Eberle, 2013). Without health literacy, individuals are not equipped with the tools to make appropriate decisions regarding their own personal health, as well as the health of their families.
In Alabama, 1 in 4 citizens are functionally illiterate (Literacy Council of West Alabama; literacywa.org/literacy-facts). It is estimated that health illiteracy rates in Alabama are significantly higher. In a response to these statistics, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System launched a program called “Shape Your Life: Healthy Living and the Health Care System”. The program was conducted in several counties and was considered a success.
In recent years, Alabama Extension’s Human Nutrition, Diet and Health team partnered with English as a Second Language community college and community based programs. The ACES project, entitled “Staying Healthy in Alabama: English as a Second Language for Health,” has reached more than 70 English language learners in six counties, while also educating a number of English-fluent program helpers.
Dr. Kathleen S. Tajeu, project director and a community health specialist with Alabama Extension, reports that preliminary data indicate that there is significant improvement in learners’ understanding of the local health care system, of appropriate usage of emergency room and urgent care, of chronic disease prevention and control strategies and of ability to read prescription labels more accurately. Additionally, there has been improvement in the ability to read food labels and apply that learning to choosing healthier foods.
In reference to the program, Tajeu said, “It has been wonderful to watch our staff not only offer critical health education to some of Alabama’s English language learners, but to also see true Southern hospitality at its best as participants, teachers and organizers have crossed barriers of background, language and knowledge to have fun and participate in learning.”
This program exemplifies ACES’ mission to create a healthier Alabama by building community partnerships, creatively reaching out to new Alabamians and addressing the basic concerns of health and nutrition in Alabama communities.