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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Health literacy program tries to bridge communication chasm between doctors, patients

Have you ever left the doctor's office scratching your head wondering what he/she diagnosed and what were his or her instructions?

Well, you haven't entered the Twilight Zone, you've entered into a medical illiteracy state of mind - it's like when you speak to a lawyer and he/she boggles your mind with legalese.

To address this problem, the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation invited New Mexico State University's Southern Area Health Education Center to submit a proposal for funding to initiate a program on health literacy. Based on the professional literature on health literacy, SoAHEC has found this is one of the reasons that many people don't follow an appropriate health plan or, for that matter, the doctor's instructions.

"We are trying to help people, especially, in connecting the needs of the patients with the health professional," said Benjamín Jácquez, SoAHEC director.

Jácquez said they are trying to help patients through "the healthcare maze" by creating a program that will train health professionals on how to be more culturally sensitive and appropriate with their patients, and at the same time train patients on how to ask appropriate questions of their healthcare providers.

"Health literacy is a huge challenge. There are so many factors to it," said Marnie Nixon, SoAHEC's Health Literacy program coordinator.

The many factors are staggering in size because you are dealing with literacy and many health issues at the same time that are not understood by the average person, let alone by someone who only has a third or fourth grade education. There is also the factor of health providers having so many patients that they don't have the time to explain to patients their diagnosis, prevention, or even to fully explain treatment options. Included in this equation is the cultural gap, Nixon said.

"As an organization, SoAHEC already helps the community in understanding health issues, but what makes health literacy different is that we try to help our community grow skills to translate that (health) information," Nixon said.

The health literacy program is funded by a grant from the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation and was started in July 2007. SoAHEC is responsible for Doña Ana and Otero counties in New Mexico. SoAHEC also partners with the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College.

To learn more about the health literacy program call Marnie Nixon at (575) 646-3441 Ext. 23 or e-mail her at mnixon@nmsu.edu.