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Alumni Scholars Bring Health Literacy to the Goldfarb Classroom

May 1, 2011

Sisters Nancy and Marilee Kuhrik have a unique opportunity: sharing their expertise as Siteman Cancer Center patient education coordinators with Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes-Jewish College students so that they learn to see themselves as “patient educators.” Many of their patient education initiatives at Siteman are supported by gifts to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation.

For health care professionals, patient safety and appropriate treatment rely on the ability to share precise, technical information with each other. But the same terminology does not necessarily translate well with people undergoing treatment.

“The experience of having cancer or other serious chronic health problems can be overwhelming for patients and their caregivers,” Marilee says. “So information needs to be presented using plainlanguage. This means health care professionals need to avoid medical
terms and use simple vocabulary when teaching patients about tests, medications and other factors related to their care.”

The Kuhriks are doing their part to ensure Goldfarb graduates develop the skills and instincts to toggle back and forth between communication styles. As Goldfarb adjunct faculty, Nancy and Marilee developed curricula for and co-teach a new health literacy elective course for
undergraduate students. Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health care decisions.

“This class introduces a crucial concept for Goldfarb students,” Nancy says. “In fact, it is in alignment with former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona’s call to improve health literacy in the United States.”

In this class, students learn to balance the complex medical information they are learning with an understanding of the difficulties that patients have when interacting with a highly compartmentalized health care system—and that it is imperative they are able to communicate with their patients in basic terms. Students also learn that their patients might be among the 90 million adults who lack the functional reading and math skills needed to navigate the United States health care system. Ultimately, Nancy and Marilee help their students recognize that each patient is experiencing a multitude of events in his or her life and that the illness or injury is just one component. Taking all of these factors into consideration helps nursing students better understand what their patients are experiencing, and that the way patients receive information could help them stay healthy or even save their lives.

“When our students become RNs, having the knowledge that health literacy helps people to stay healthy will allow them to empower patients to manage their disease and lead better lives,” Nancy says. “And hopefully nurses with whom they work will witness the importance of health literacy during their interactions with our nursing graduates.”

Nancy and Marilee agree that imparting knowledge they have gained from working with patients within the Barnes-Jewish system for more than 30 years is rewarding. But they have not only shared knowledge during their careers; they have both also given annual charitable gifts to the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation to support scholarship funds for Goldfarb students and funds for the Siteman Cancer Center.

“We both received scholarships and recognize that we would not have been able to complete our degrees and have such success in our careers without the generosity of others,” Marilee says. “Whether it is by financial means or by sharing knowledge and creative talents, giving is part of what the nursing profession must do for the next generation of nurses,” Nancy says.

After taking the Kuhriks’s health literacy course, one student, Lauren Karasek, said she was now “confident in her ability to teach patients and make their disease understandable for them.”

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