Health literacy proves a wicked problem

Featured in North Carolina State University’s The Technician


Health literacy, according to Amina Patton, a masters student in graphic design, is an example of a “wicked” problem.

“A wicked problem,” Patton said. “It’s an actual term. The term refers to a problem that is so complex and [is] such a systemic thing that there’s not just going to be one person that’s going to be able to figure it out and it’s not just going to be one field that figures it out.”

For Patton and many other students trying to address the issue of health literacy, now is a dynamic time. October, which is also Health Literacy Month, has just come to a close and the national dialogue has shifted once again to health care.

Still, no “wicked” problem is solved with just one idea or is addressed with just one month. Even the definition of health literacy is more complicated than initially apparent.

“The “quote-unquote” definition of health literacy is an individual’s ability to access, understand and use health information in their day-to-day decision making,” R.V. Rikard, a graduate student in sociology, said. “Literacy, our ability to read, write, understand information, is not just an individual trait. We are not just popped out and we have high or low literacy. Literacy level is socially-influenced. So my level of health literacy may be higher than others in a specific health topic but it is maybe lower in another respect.”

This is largely because of challenges regarding social context that health literacy requires people from different backgrounds and disciplines to understand.

“We have to understand health literacy as socially defined,” Rikard said. “We have to understand its social context.”

Rikard is using his sociology background to see if there is any correlation between health, health awareness and how social contexts affect health literacy.

“My dissertation research is really taking [a 2003 health dataset] that hasn’t been used in social sciences research and looking at disparities,” Rikard said. “If there are any, then in whom and what role does health literacy play in understanding these disparities.”

Rikard was inspired to do this research three years ago when he and his colleagues in the sociology department first started doing research on health literacy, especially regarding HIV and AIDS amongst the African American community. They eventually created health awareness tool kits that were distributed around the area.

Since then, Rikard has remained active. He has facilitated Twitter discussions, is an active member of the Wake County Health Coalition, maintains a health blog, posted blog entries on national websites and has a Twitter chat with Kathleen Hoffman, a health specialist from Greensboro, every Thursday. Even beyond his dissertation, Rikard is passionate in keeping his involvement with raising health literacy a large part of his life.

“I work in applied research. That is my goal,” Rikard said. “I see my role as out working with a non-profit or with a government agency to help clarify the idea of health literacy and make information accessible, make the services accessible and providing people with the bare bone basics.”

However, Rikard is not alone in his work. Patton has similar goals and the two have maintained contact. Although the connection between graphic design and healthcare may not be immediately apparent, Patton finds her skills allow her to find a place in the health literacy dialogue.

“Ironically enough, graphic design and health literacy really connect,” Patton said. “A lot of the problems with health literacy come from a communication barrier.”

Patton seeks to use her thesis project to address this issue. Inspired by television shows like MTV’s Teen Mom, she hopes to find a way to better communicate nutrition information to pregnant teenagers. Like Rikard, Patton sees her place in the health literacy communication to be lasting.

“The more I got into [the health literacy discussion], the more I got interested,” Patton said. “It could potentially follow me and I would love that.”

However, there are many problems and perspectives as with any “wicked” problem. These problems continue to bring disciplines together.


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