Health Informatics and the Importance of Health LiteracyOn August 2, 2001 I was unexpectedly relocated to a foreign country. Since I had never been there, the locals took it upon themselves to direct me where to go and what to do to, and how to manage the necessary tasks to survive. Unfortunately, it was all in their native tongue. Luckily, I had learned a little of the language from the shows on television and could vaguely make out what people were saying. This unplanned adventure stripped away all my confidence, any decision that had to be made became an exercise of deep analysis, and overall resulted in a constant state of survival.

Valuable lessons from cultural cues

Over time, the journey became easier. Understanding the language opened the door to learning valuable lessons about the subtle clues of society every culture has. Learning a language allows one to communicate with another. Whether it be preparing to travel to another country, interacting with global business partners, or making a new community connection it is perceived as a sign of respect when you try to meet someone where by uttering a few words in their native tongue.

The language of healthcare – health literacySo many languages!

In recent years’ healthcare has added a few new languages to their repertoire. There is the language of public policy when it comes to regulations that drive pay for performance initiatives. Then there is the language of information technology to trigger the necessary actions to ensure quality. As the ability to travel to other countries is now commonplace, the number of patients who speak different languages increases.

We have become an industry that must understand each other’s language to execute the greatest mission on earth: caring for one another. Healthcare expresses caring through the act of healing, and when healing is not possible, we offer comfort for the journey.

Creating a place of understanding

Health literacy is not about rote memorization or regurgitation of technical words; it is the ability to put words together to paint a picture that moves the other person to a place of understanding. I will be the first to admit it: “Easy to say, not so easy to do.” Why?

There is a stark contrast between the need to accomplish patient care driven by clicks of a mouse, data analysis, and the ever increasing time constraints vs. the need to have a detailed conversation, offer a shoulder of compassion, and space to heal.

Healthcare providers walk a tightrope of ambiguity knowing one misstep could end in disaster for either themselves or their patients. Patients are encouraged to participate in their own healthcare by making decisions, but they don’t know the rules of the game. (How many know what Meaningful Use is?) Patients worry about taking up too much of the provider’s time by asking questions, or the patient doesn’t want to admit that they don’t fully understand what the provider is saying.

Technical proficiency cannot be the whole story

Information technology professionals are great at what they do. They build exactly what is told to tell them. Anyone remember what GIGO means from your Computer Science 101 class? Garbage In Garbage Out. IT professionals are not medical professionals. They do not understand that coding a paper document exactly as is presented may not accurately reflect clinical workflow. Yeah – it’s complicated, but we can learn from one another.

Health informatics – the translator between tech and empathy

Just as I learned from a full culture and language immersion, healthcare is learning from a full immersion experience too. So how do we as Health Informatics professionals help alleviate this language barrier? We become the intermediary helping translate clinical workflow into the information technology language of ones and zeros, to help providers become more efficient in the data-gathering process.

As Health Informatics professionals, we buy those precious moments in time to allow providers to be the empathetic healers they signed up to be.

We help healthcare turn medical jargon into the beer-and-pretzels English that any “Joe” on the street can understand. Health Informatics professionals have a direct impact on the mission of healthcare to support one of the guiding principles of healthcare as reflected in the Hippocratic Oath: “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability.”  We speak the language of the doctor, technology and the patient.

Coming full circle

This week marks the 15-year anniversary of my unplanned trip to that foreign place – because in 2001, my 31-year-old husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer – and I became a caregiver, plunged into the foreign country of healthcare. I was abruptly initiated and accepted into one of the world’s largest communities the world: healthcare. By necessity, I became the translator of words.

Now, as a Health Informatics professional, every day I strive to remember the words of the great Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

-Teresa Younkin