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Q&A: The Health Literacy Collaborative Summit

IHA’s Stan Hudson talks with Wisconsin Literacy’s Michele Erikson about the organization’s next-generation event.

By Stan Hudson, MA, CDFT 

The Health Literacy Collaborative Summit is the next iteration of Wisconsin Health Literacy’s biannual event. Read our Q&A with executive director Michele Erikson.

Health literacy is a constantly changing and expanding field, and the same is true of the organizations and events that support its evolution. 
 
As the new director of professional development and training for the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA) — and the former director of health literacy at Wisconsin Literacy — I’ve had the privilege of participating in this change and working with some of health literacy’s brightest lights. 
 
One such bright light is Michele Erikson, executive director of Wisconsin Literacy, who is retiring this year. Under her direction, Wisconsin’s Health Literacy Summit has grown over the past 20 years from a statewide gathering to a national event that now has a new name and several new partners. 
 
The Health Literacy Collaborative Summit — cohosted with health literacy organizations from Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, and Michigan — will be held April 8–9 in Madison, Wis. I spoke with Michele recently about the changes she’s seen in her tenure and what participants can expect at this year’s Summit.

Stan Hudson | The Summit has evolved quite a bit since its beginning. Could you please give us a brief history?

Michele Erikson | Sure! The first event, in 2004, was a simple gathering of local literacy agencies. It was organized by David Kindig, a professor from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was also the former chair of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on Health Literacy. The idea was to bring people together to talk about what was happening at literacy agencies as it relates to health, as well as about the health-understanding needs of students and the field of health literacy in general.

The next Summit, in 2006, was a statewide, all-day event. Attendees from literacy agencies were encouraged to bring a local healthcare provider with them — a pharmacist, a nurse, or anyone in the field of health. If you brought a provider with you, you only had to pay for lunch! That’s when we started building regional health literacy committees across the state that ran activities, implementation projects, and eventually statewide strategic plans.

I would say 2009 was a pivotal Summit for Wisconsin Health Literacy. That was the year we went from a statewide conference to being on the map as a national event. Our featured speakers discussed how the field would address organizational health literacy as well as individual and community-level health literacy. And Cynthia Baur, who had completed 2 years of town hall meetings across the country, unveiled the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, which she authored, at this Summit.

We’ve hosted the Summit almost every other year since its inception. We didn’t have a Summit in 2021 due to the pandemic but reconvened in 2022.

Stan Hudson | What was behind the decision to expand the Summit this year to a collaboration with 8 other states?

Michele Erikson | It takes a lot of resources to host a national, in-person conference. It takes a lot of fundraising and sponsorship. For smaller state agencies, it’s a big risk to take on this kind of event, yet they really want to do the work within their state to grow a broader coalition of health literacy advocates.

So, we started a discussion about what it would look like if we all got together and changed the Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit to a broader event where we could highlight the great work going on in the participating 8 states. They’re encouraging their own state partners to attend the Summit as well. All our partners have been wonderful at helping plan and implement the Summit.

Stan Hudson | What are the core themes of this year’s Summit, and why are they important now?

Michele Erikson | One track is health insurance literacy. With more people than ever in the marketplace for health insurance, health insurance providers and navigators could learn from this track the best ways to communicate with consumers. How do you look for health insurance? How do you consider what’s affordable for the coverage you need? How can you use your health insurance policy to your advantage as the consumer? This track is about how to best communicate this kind of information.

Health literacy in schools is another track and an issue whose time has come. If we’re going to work upstream, then we need to think about what kids know when they come out of high school. What is their basic understanding of how to access, understand, and use healthcare systems and services to be healthy individuals? If health literacy were embedded in K–12 curriculum, imagine how much less health literacy advocates and educators would have to teach adults already in the healthcare system or individuals who are trying to understand health for themselves and their families.

Wisconsin Health Literacy is particularly concerned with general digital literacy as well as digital health literacy, so that’s a third track. So many ways we access healthcare information and care itself are digital these days. Telehealth, things like patient monitoring devices, and using patient portals to get lab results and make appointments all require digital skills. When it comes to health, being able to increase these skills is critical for engagement.

The last track is about public and private efforts toward health literacy in communities. This track is about implementation projects that literacy agencies, libraries, or health organizations might use to reach certain populations in health literate ways. We’re offering a session on communicating health literate information in the deaf community, for example. These sessions will help people find ways for their communities to access and act on health information.

Stan Hudson | You’ve said that this Summit is focused on “health literacy in the streets.” What do you mean by this?

Michele Erikson | Wisconsin Health Literacy is a division of a statewide literacy agency that supports 78 community-based programs working with adults at various levels of literacy, at various levels of English language acquisition, and with various digital skill sets and educational experiences. When we began looking at health literacy, we asked ourselves, “What could this look like in our literacy agencies and on the street?”

People were coming into community literacy programs not understanding certain health information. For example, they were asking their tutors to help them understand information they’d received from their doctor and what they needed to do. So now you get into different cultural beliefs around health, and you’re teaching English and sharing information about healthcare and health systems in the United States.

We started to realize that health literacy in the streets is critical, because that’s where it’s playing out. We saw that providers and individual community members need to find middle ground where shared responsibility can occur — where understanding how to care for oneself and communicating information so people can care for themselves comes together. 

I think that our organization and our Summit will always have that flavor of what it means to have health literacy in the community.

Stan Hudson | Who should come to this Summit?

Michele Erikson | Anyone who is in a position to communicate — or help others learn how to communicate — health information, health services, or health approaches could benefit. The Summit will help individuals understand how people take in information and why it’s important to be clear, accessible, and equitable.

About the Author

Stan Hudson

Stan Hudson is director of professional development and training for the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA). Prior to joining IHA, he was health literacy director for Wisconsin Literacy, Inc. He is a health literacy expert and health policy analyst with nearly 25 years of experience in health services research and more than 15 years of experience in health literacy with a focus on curriculum development. 
 
Over the last 2 decades, Hudson has led the development and implementation of health literacy and health equity education programs and curricula for health professionals and communities. For the past 3 years, he has been working on an extensive project to improve prescription medication labels in Wisconsin, making them easier to understand to increase adherence and reduce medication errors.


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