Libraries Conduct Health Literacy Research at State Fair

Conversations about the Minnesota State Fair often focus on numbers – annual attendance, daily temperatures, gallons of milk served.

This year the Health Sciences Libraries have added to this conversation through their research on health literacy – the extent to which individuals can obtain, process and understand basic health information – with a particular focus on numbers and graphs.

Health literacy is important because it impacts an individual’s ability to make informed decisions about health care. Many conversations about health involve numbers and require an understanding of increased risk, comparisons of drug effectiveness, and test results. Even daily activities, such as the ability to understand a nutritional label, can impact health and well-being.

About the study

Librarians Caitlin Bakker and Jonathan Koffel led the study, titled “Can you crack the health care code?” They were 1 of 41 studies that were selected through a competitive application process at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center. Over 370 participants completed the research questionnaire, well over the 200 participants that were anticipated.

The questionnaire included three instruments that have been used previously to test health literacy. Questions covered the number of calories in an entire container of ice cream, reading the temperature on a thermometer, and the chance of catching a cold. To answer the numbers-based questions, participants had to interpret written information and information presented in tables and graphs.

Measuring impact

“By understanding the health literacy of Minnesotans, health providers, caregivers, friends, and family members – all of us with a health concern – will be able to have more successful and informed conversations around health and health care.”
– Janice Jaguszewski
Bakker and Koffel are just beginning the data analysis process, but they did leave the fair with some interesting observations. They found that math questions were very polarizing. “Some people groaned when they saw them, but others told us how fun they found them and wanted to know how they did,” said Koffel. They also spoke with parents, who said they wished these critical thinking skills around health were taught in school.  

Most importantly, Bakker and Koffel report that they were able to use this opportunity to expand upon people’s perception of the contributions made by libraries and librarians. They found themselves amongst a peer group of lawyers, public health professionals, and others who had a common interest in literacy skills.  

Bakker and Koffel plan to share their research findings with this broader group. By using tested research instruments, they intend to compare their results and gain a better understanding of the comparative health literacy of Minnesotans.

“To the best of our knowledge, no studies have addressed the health literacy rates including textual literacy, numeracy, and graphic literacy in the state’s general population,” said Bakker. “Such work would be of practical value to researchers and clinicians in estimating a baseline of knowledge with which to more accurately develop and implement interventions,” she adds.  

Fulfilling a mission

By developing a better understanding of our state’s health literacy, the Health Sciences Libraries not only support the education, research, clinical care, and outreach missions of the University of Minnesota’s Academic Health Center, but also contribute to a larger discussion about reliable health information, patient-provider interaction, patient engagement, and informed decision-making.  

This work expands upon current initiatives within the Health Sciences Libraries, including work to bring evidence-based health information and the latest medical research to all Minnesotans through the development of  the Minnesota Electronic Health Library (MeHL).  

“Our goal for MeHL is to not only make good health information available to everyone in our state, but to ensure that the information is relevant, understandable, and usable,” says Janice Jaguszewski, Director of the Health Sciences Libraries.  “By understanding the health literacy of Minnesotans, health providers, caregivers, friends, and family members – all of us with a health concern – will be able to have more successful and informed conversations around health and health care,” she says.

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