Members planning committee
Members of the planning committee for the one-day symposium included (L to R) UHN Patient Partners Teresa Farn and Anna Sottile, as well as Farrah Schwartz, Manager of Patient Engagement Innovation at UHN. (Photo: UHN)

Teresa Farn has first-hand experience about the importance of health literacy – as an advocate for her elderly parents and as a patient navigating her own medical condition.

While helping her parents, who live in another province, Teresa noticed they didn't ask questions of their doctor and hesitated to get involved in their care. At one point, Teresa had to step in, asking questions and helping address her father's medication needs.

Teresa's own experience with diabetes also helped her realize the importance of health literacy, which can be defined as using a wide range of skills to improve the ability of a person to act on information they receive in order to live healthier lives.

"When I was diagnosed with diabetes, it came like a bolt out of the blue for me," Teresa recalls. "The doctor told me that diabetes is a condition for which you have control.

"That got me thinking about the need to learn as much as I could."

Health literacy plays a key role in patient engagement, informed consent and decision-making, improved patient safety, better navigation of the health system, reduced health risks, increased prevention and wellness, better patient care, fewer inequities in health, and improved quality of life.

UHN, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the Canadian Health Literacy and Patient Education Network, or CHLPEN, yesterday co-hosted a symposium on health literacy.

The full-day event brought together about 150 people from across the healthcare spectrum, including clinicians, patients, policy makers and planners and those working in public health and provincial agencies across Ontario. An additional 150 people joined from across the country through webcast.

They shared innovative practices being used for health literacy and engaged in a wide variety of discussions on topics ranging from learning through patient stories to digital health literacy and others.

Patient advisors from three Toronto hospitals participated in planning the event, including Teresa and Anna Sottile, who are UHN Patient Partners.

For Anna, it was important to get involved with proactive learning and planning for health literacy. She says she was also impressed the Ministry worked with groups across healthcare, including providers and consumers, to organize the symposium.

"Everyone's voice must be heard in order to enhance the level of care and access to care in Ontario," says Anna, describing the importance of having patients involved in planning the event.

"I have learned that health literacy is multifaceted: it can mean prevention; it can mean technical knowledge of systems or processes; it can mean an understanding of how to navigate the healthcare landscape to obtain services and care for yourself or a loved one.

"I have also learned that there is myriad dedicated healthcare providers, patients and caregivers who will share their knowledge and desired directions if an appropriate forum is provided."

The symposium featured two innovative practice panels that shared emerging practices from across Ontario. Some of the innovations presented included work done in the community to enhance health literacy and point-of-care tools, such as the Patient Oriented Discharge Summary.

Teresa says the experience of reviewing the proposals submitted for presentation at the symposium increased her confidence to speak up.

"I was a bit nervous doing it because I don't have a medical background and I'm retired now and I never worked in that area," Teresa says. "I felt nervous, like I didn't have those qualifications.

"What surprised me in the end was that I was pretty much in the mix with everyone else. I felt really good after doing it." 

Farrah Schwartz, Manager of Patient Engagement Innovation at UHN and co-chair of the event's planning committee, says health literacy is an important area of focus that's continuing to grow.

"The symposium builds on work we've been doing with the Ministry for a year-and-a- half to share information about health literacy best practices and to bring people together," says Farrah, who is also one of the founders of the Canadian Health Literacy and Patient Education Network.

"It was a day of learning for everyone, and having UHN Patient Partners and patient advisors from other hospitals ensured we heard about health literacy from many perspectives."

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