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Life Lessons: Why I Teach Health Literacy to My 10th Graders

October 29, 2015 | By: Linda Miller, Educator and Health Care Advocate

Life Lessons: Why I Teach Health Literacy to My 10th Graders

Linda Miller is a health and physical education teacher in Pennsylvania. After experiencing the health system as an advocate for her father, Linda is committed to improving patient and family engagement. She improves health literacy through curriculum development and teaching high school students and works to improve patient and family engagement in hospitals and health systems as a member of HAP’s Patient and Family Engagement Advisory Council.

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I got the call from my mother in February 2012 that started it all. My father was admitted to a local hospital to have stents placed in his neck to open his narrowed arteries. Unfortunately, my father experienced multiple setbacks, and more than 75 days and seven surgeries later, still had not recovered.

During the next three years, my father received treatment after treatment, for condition after condition, in multiple facilities, by multiple providers. During my father’s illness, my family experienced some of the best that our health system offers, along with painful doses of what it lacked. 

As I entered my high school health and physical education classroom during that time period, my students became aware of the health challenges that my father faced, along with the challenges that my family and I faced as we tried to understand his condition, his care, and advocate for his needs.

These classroom discussions presented tremendous learning opportunities for my students, who, as they move towards young adulthood, will make an increasing number of independent health decisions. Through these discussions, it became clear to me that my students lacked health literacy—the understanding and skills needed to manage their own health.

An American Medical Association report found that poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person's health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race. As an educator with a mission to prepare students for their futures, improving their health literacy and teaching them how to advocate for their needs became my focus.

I thought about the things that my students needed to know, or what resources they could use to help themselves and advocate for themselves, and incorporated it into a new health and physical education curriculum for our school district. In the “health advocacy” unit, students spend two days understanding the importance of advocating for their own health as well as being provided with hands-on opportunities for learning.

During the first day, students learn about self-advocacy, including steps and strategies. They learn to complete a medical history checklist and are asked to reflect and write in journals about why it’s important to know your medical history. Students then break into small groups and discuss a recent primary care medical visit, while recalling and logging facts about the visit. They learn the importance of coming to a medical appointment prepared and actually create a document that lists their signs, symptoms, and reasons for an appointment, along with any concerns or questions.

During the second day, students spend time learning about the importance of online patient tools and have the opportunity to review real examples. They close the lesson with a role-play activity where they are given a medical condition to act out. Students collaborate with each other and role-play doctor visits, working through common fears, such as asking questions and discussing medications. The students demonstrate what they’ve learned by having a written list ready to present at each appointment.

Though my father died earlier this year, I know I’m impacting the health of future generations through my work. I’m teaching my students how to take ownership of their health.

October is Patient-Centered Care Awareness Month and provides an opportunity for everyone—whether you are providing care or receiving care—to join together and commit to making the types of organizational and individual changes that are necessary to improve health literacy and ensure that meaningful partnerships are possible.




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