Getting to a Health Literate Society

When Dr. Carolyn Custer was growing up, she needed to help her brother, who had dyslexia, understand things better. The experience allowed her to recognize that she had the ability to communicate complex information in a way that could be easily understood and later gave rise to her advocacy work on behalf of those who struggle to read; she volunteered at Siena Literacy Center for two years teaching adult literacy. Her heightened sensibility for working with people who struggle with literacy heavily influenced her decision to lend her medical training to the practice of community health.

Dr. Custer serves as the Director of Quality and Community Medicine at Authority Health, where there is a unique focus on training resident physicians enrolled in the Graduate Medical Education (GME) program to be, among other things, what Dr. Custer refers to as “healthcare literate.”

Increasing health literacy is one way Authority Health helps eradicate health disparities among Detroit and Wayne County residents. Dr. Custer makes use of the goals and objectives issued by Healthy People 2030, which has “experienced a great change and shift in perspective” in its definition and guidelines with respect to health literacy. Dr. Custer explained that “in the past health literacy has always been on the ownness of the person,” however, in the new goals “acknowledge that organizations bare responsibility to address health literacy” by equitably enabling individuals to understand and use health-related information and services. This distinction was an important one because as Dr. Custer puts it, “not everyone is a cookie-cutter mold of one thing.”

Determining “what information do people have, what information do people want to have, and how do they like to receive that information” with regards to their healthcare is a cornerstone in Dr. Custer’s and the entire GME team’s approach to attaining health literacy.

In keeping with this approach, Authority Health partnered with Libraries Without Borders to implement the Wash and Learn initiative, spearheaded by Dr. Custer, a series of experiential events that took place at local laundromats where medical residents provide educational sessions to members of the community who happen to be on site.

Most recently, Dr. Custer is developing a health literacy program to address COVID vaccine hesitancy through a program called “Wayne County Health Catalysts for COVID Care Project.” The health literacy project will train community health workers, working for federally qualified health centers “to evaluate their health literacy practices as well as looking at their materials  and processes to see if they, in fact, do have the best practices in place.” The goal being, as Dr. Custer concludes is to, “become more health literate so that as healthcare professionals we are able to better engage with our patients.

Dr. Carolyn Custer is the Director of Quality and Community Medicine at Authority Health