Why take a health literacy course? A conversation with Dr. Lindsay Rosenfeld

Headshot of Lindsay Rosenfeld

Every fall, the Harvard Chan School offers two courses: SBS 515 – Health Literacy – Practical Tools to Make Information More Equitable and SBS 516 – Health Literacy – Practical Tools to Make Organizations and Systems More Equitable. They are taught by Dr. Lindsay Rosenfeld, Instructor in Social and Behavioral Sciences. We caught up with her to hear about why students that are passionate about health equity should take these courses.

Tell me about your journey to the field of health communication.
My journey really began as a second-grade teacher. As an elementary classroom teacher, I was planning and leading the lessons, of course, but I was also filling many other classroom needs: family engagement coordinator, afterschool facilitator, family-academic partnership manager, long-term curriculum planner. As I carried out these roles for my students, I was also wading through the broader factors that affected our classroom: under-funding of districts, families with competing priorities working to have their basic needs met, burnt out colleagues, limited food for students, violence at home and in the community, and poor access to healthcare.
Teaching second grade amidst these complex interactions led me to graduate work in public health where I gravitated toward health equity. In particular, I became interested in the field of health literacy, which is focused on creating equitable and navigable systems that are set-up so people can access, understand, and use health and other information to make decisions for themselves or their families. When I was a student, peers (and most professors too!) were completely flummoxed by my previous role as an elementary school teacher, but the links were crystal clear to me. In particular, I was struck by the profound ways public health could structure better health by focusing on policies, institutions, organizations, and communities.   Focusing on health literacy across multiple levels has the power to improve health equity, be it in education, health(care), housing, or beyond.

Why should people care about health literacy?
If you care about improving health equity, considering health literacy is essential. Health literacy gets at the heart of equitable access to information, services, and opportunities. To improve health equity, everybody must be able to find, understand, and use relevant information, whether in a healthcare setting, to secure paid family and medical leave benefits, enroll a child in school, or thousands of other tasks that impact our health. Attention to health literacy is critical to ensuring that the systems we build are usable and improve health equity.

What skills can people expect to take away from a health literacy course?
In both courses, you will gain critical analytic skills for considering information, systems, processes, and policy. For example, you will learn how to use health literacy assessment tools, present health literacy findings, and make recommendations for health literacy improvement. You will learn to ask new questions.

Students have used these skills in concurrent and future courses, practica, internships, research studies, and jobs after graduation. Over the years, I have heard many times about how evidence-based skills and frameworks highlighted in the courses gave students an edge in securing new opportunities.

I noticed that the course descriptions say that you could have the opportunity to work directly with an organization interested in a health literacy assessment. Could you tell me more about that?
Yes! For both courses, there is an option to work with an organization that wants assessment completed. Most students decide to work with an organization that has volunteered to participate, but students are also welcome to work with an organization they have connections to, or to engage with publicly available information and spaces (e.g., CDC website, health center). Ahead of the semester, I spend a lot of time recruiting organizations that span multiple areas of interest (e.g., hospitals, libraries, social services, government). This way, students have options for information assessment (SBS 515) or environment/organization assessment (SBS 516). The final course assignment is then shared with organizations so they can use the data and recommendations in their work.

Sounds great, what kind of time commitment can I expect?
Both courses are 2.5 credits and meet Mondays/Wednesdays from 2-3:30pm. Each week requires assigned readings, interactive assignments, and attendance/participation in small and large groups. There are many optional readings and resources, as useful. Finally, both courses involve applied work, as described above, which creates the foundation for integrating course content into a practical final assignment. Course evaluations describe students spending an average of 4-6 hours/week, outside of class time.

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