Health Literacy is the Heartbeat of Public Health

This blog post was originally posted on the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy website on April 8, 2019

Written by Dr. Boris Lushniak, Dean, University of Maryland School of Public Health

Photo of School of Public Health Dean Boris Lushniak

When the School of Public Health was established twelve years ago, the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy was created at the same time. We were inspired to establish the school and immediately realized the need for the Center to achieve our goals. They were born together, mirroring a clear relationship between health equity and health literacy in the real world. One doesn’t happen without the other.

Health equity is about achieving the highest levels of healthcare for all. Health literacy is how an individual makes decisions to achieve that high level. We can aspire and proclaim that we’re shooting for health equity in our community, but it’s not going to happen until we spend a lot of time working on health literacy.

At the School of Public Health, integrating health literacy into the curriculum is key to fueling our future leaders’ fight for health equity. One of the ways we do this is through “How to Be a Health Advocate: Health Literacy in Action,” an undergraduate class centered on health literacy. The course is the brainchild of the Horowitz Center’s Director, Dr. Cynthia Baur, and Heather Platter, a Rima Rudd Health Literacy Fellow. Throughout the semester, students learn how to advocate for their health and the community’s health through interactive discussion and projects.

This is the first time we’ve offered an undergraduate health literacy class, and we don’t plan on it being the last. I don’t see us teaching health literacy as one separate course. When we’re teaching health exposures and public health in action, we need to intertwine the health literacy component. Whether it’s a passing reference or a guest lecture, health literacy must be present in all facets of public health teaching. Students cannot turn it off as soon as they’re done with one course.

Our work never finishes when it comes to educating future public health leaders within our doors. Students, armed with their public health degrees, will make decisions later on that affect scores of individuals. To ensure health equity for all, we must always be educating and interweaving health literacy in these crucial conversations.

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