University of Maryland: Bill Seeks to Expand Role of UMD Center in Advancing State’s Health Literacy

Proposed Maryland legislation would designate the University of Maryland’s Horowitz Center for Health Literacy the state’s consumer health information hub, leading efforts to make health care information more accessible, clear and reliable.

The House bill is sponsored by Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who represents the College Park area, and is scheduled to be part of a hearing today before the Health and Government Operations Committee. The legislation would require state and local agencies to use plain language in public communications about health, safety and social services benefits and make funds available for the center to work with local agencies, health care providers and public health professionals to enhance health literacy.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the need for centralized health communication into stark relief, particularly at its outset, when there was lots of confusion about masking and social distancing. But health literacy is needed all of the time, said Cynthia Baur, professor and director of the Horowitz Center.

“For example, we work with the Maryland Department of Health on the state’s diabetes action plan,” she said. “There are definitely health literacy issues related to what people know about diabetes—how important people think of it as an issue, whether or not they think they can do anything about it, or if they view it as kind of inevitable based on people in their family or community having it.”

Baur said that challenges with health communication and literacy include translation and knowledge transfer: While she knows the best ways for a doctor to explain something to a patient in the way that that patient is most likely to understand, the hurdle is to get those techniques to clinicians so that they can be shared with patients.

The legislation, if passed by the full House and state Senate and signed by the governor, would aim to tackle these problems at a scale that has not been tried before, Baur said. It makes clear that the health literacy challenges are not specific to any one county or illness, but statewide. And while they are also not limited to any one racial or ethnic group, people of color— who make up a majority of Marylanders—continue to face poorer health outcomes.

“The data consistently show ongoing and, in some cases, growing health disparities in Maryland,” said Mariam Assi, M.D., who serves as a legislative staffer for Peña-Melnyk and is an MPH candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated many of these disparities. The inspiration behind this bill comes from an increasing recognition that we must shift our health policy framework to create a more equitable model for providing care.”

Baur and Assi stressed that the bill shifts the focus from individual health care providers to the health care system.

“As a physician, it is my moral responsibility to practice with a health equity framework and address health literacy and other social determinants of health at the individual patient level, and I believe the same moral responsibility lies on organizations at the state population level,” said Assi. “Health literacy is really a health equity matter. Maryland will fulfill its commitment to closing gaps in health inequities when everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible.”

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