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Health Literacy: Bridging the Cultural Gap

Health Literacy: Bridging the Cultural Gap

Picture of Jessica Ogilvie

As one of the largest, most expansive cities in the country, Los Angeles faces huge challenges in getting out health-related messages that resonate with the city's myriad cultures. Lack of health literacy, or having trouble understanding either the benefits or the details of modern, often Western medicine, has ripple effects, including patients being less likely to seek preventive care and more likely to use hospital emergency rooms for routine medical care. 

The "Improving Health Literacy in Los Angeles" Conference I am live blogging about today aims to address these literacy issues and to explore cultural barriers that might prevent L.A. residents from accessing care. Sponsored by a USC center dedicated to encouraging conversations between academics and practitioners, it brings together about 220 clinicians, community non-profit leaders and researchers who often don't have an opportunity to converse and collaborate on best practices. We started our coverage a few days ago, with an introductory post by Michelle Levander, editor-in-chief of ReportingonHealth, who is speaking here today. Michelle and I also encourage speakers, participants and interested readers to join in the conversation about these important issues.

Michele D. Kipke, PhD, who introduced the conference, said she hoped participants would leave not just having had a nice day and some lunch, but with an idea of how to incorporate these ideas into their interactions with clients. At ReportingonHealth we are sharing information on the day because these ideas can also lead to fruitful stories in your community.

Commonly cited obstacles to health care include language barriers or lack of general information. But the first of a four-part film, Worlds Apart, which was shown here to jump start the discussion, tells a different story.

The segment opens with Justine, a young girl with a hole in her heart. Her doctor recommends surgery, but her grandmother, who is from Laos, believes that surgery is a form of mutilation that will scar Justine in lives to come. As she tells Justine's doctor: "Better to live a shorter period of time than to be mutilated for all time."

The added pressure on Justine's mother -- that, she says, her family will blame her if anything goes wrong in surgery -- makes her that much more hesitant to send her daughter under the knife.

Scientific and medical research is already trying to play catch-up among the general community. According to Kipke, who is the associate director of the L.A. Basin Clinical and Translational Science Institute, there is a 20-year gap between when medical and scientific discoveries are made, and when they become part of general practice. When there are struggles with gaining the cooperation of a community, that gap only increases.

And so, said Kipke, the community's involvement and buy-in is critical to making any health literacy endeavor successful. Medical professionals have to ask how research drives and effects community needs, and ultimately, she said, "how [do we] make research and the community meet?"

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