UCLA hospital volunteers will help patients better understand their health conditions and treatments with Project Health Literacy, a new research project.
The project will have two parts. Volunteers, who are mostly undergraduate students, will first survey patients to measure their health literacy. If the survey results reveal a lack of knowledge in particular areas, volunteers then reach out to individual patients and doctors to inform them about the gap.
Patients with high health literacy understand the seriousness of their diseases, the effectiveness of each medicine and general medical terminology, said Ojas Deshpande, the project’s co-founder and coordinator.
The research project launched last quarter at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. It operates through UCLA’s Care Extender Program, a volunteer program in which students assist UCLA medical center staff in a clinical environment.
John Tawfik, the project’s co-founder and coordinator, said he was inspired to launch the project because when he was growing up in Egypt, he noticed patients with low health literacy found it difficult to describe their conditions, hindering doctors’ diagnoses.
Patients’ lack of health literacy also affects their communication with doctors in more subtle ways, said Neil Parikh, the project’s principal investigator and assistant clinical professor of department of medicine.
“Some patients don’t want to admit they don’t understand the doctor because of self-esteem,” Parikh said. “Or culturally, some patients assume it to be disrespectful of the physician to ask questions, which is of course not the case.”
Parikh said in these cases, doctors do not realize patients have trouble understanding their instructions until patients fail to follow through with their treatment plans. By that time, the treatment’s effectiveness is already diminished.
Deshpande said he noticed there are disparities in health literacy among patients from different backgrounds.
For instance, when he was shadowing a doctor in Orange County, he said he found language and other cultural barriers sometimes prevent Hispanic patients from fully understanding their health conditions.
The project’s first step is to investigate the health literacy level of patients from different communities who come to UCLA medical centers.
“Ronald Reagan Hospital is a melting pot with patients from so many different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses,” Deshpande said. “It is a perfect place to examine the general health literacy status of the population in our community.”
Researchers will apply the Short Test of Functional Health Literacy in Adults, a seven-minute survey which requires patients to answer multiple-choice questions after reading a passage, to measure patients’ health literacy, Tawfik said.
This survey allows volunteers to understand specific patients’ health literacy levels, Deshpande said. After receiving the survey results, volunteers then clarify concepts to the patients and inform doctors about potential communication obstacles.
“What these volunteers take is a small step but it will make a big difference in the following treatment,” Deshpande said. “When patients know what’s wrong with them, they will understand how seriously they should take the problem and how urgent it is to take pills on time.”
The second step is to provide interventions, such as information sessions, that improve people’s health literacy in the long run, Deshpande said. Researchers will tailor targeted interventions for different communities if the surveys show they experience disparities in health literacy.
The research project also benefits hospitals and medical businesses by reducing patients’ return rate, Deshpande said.
“If patients come back to the hospital within 30 days because their treatment is not effective, the burden is on the hospital,” Deshpande said.
With higher health literacy, patients will take medication on time and learn to self-treat, improving the treatment the hospital provides, Deshpande added.
Deshpande said the Care Extender Program is a good platform to implement this research project because it covers various departments in both the Ronald Reagan and Santa Monica UCLA medical centers, enabling researchers to collect larger amounts of diverse data.
The program’s volunteers can best carry out the research because they are dedicated to health care and have received proper medical training, he added.
Parikh said health care providers have always intended to complete research like Project Health Literacy but have not done so systematically and efficiently. Besides helping patients, the project also further integrates volunteers who may become medical professionals in the future.
“The project aims to incorporate so many different people, from the patients and health care providers to the volunteers,” Parikh said. “It is the biggest challenge but also the beauty of (the project).”