Last week, April 4th and 5th, was this year’s Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit – a biennial gathering of health professionals, educators, librarians, and vendors to discuss ongoing efforts to combat health illiteracy. You can find the full details of this year’s summit here. This was my first time attending the summit and it quickly became one of my favorite conferences to date. It was also my first time giving a talk in a conference setting – but more on that later.

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The summit kicked off with a keynote from Anne Fadiman, discussing her experiences with health literacy working with a Hmong family, which culminated in her book The Spirit Catches You. Her talk was the perfect way to begin for two reasons: it shined a light on the innumerable ways that health communication can falter AND gave us a real, emotional connection to our work. So often in healthcare things become too detached and it can be easy to forget that real people are at the other end of all that we do. I’d say this is an issue even for us in medical librarianship.

You could say that there were two common threads throughout the talks I attended at this year’s summit. First, acknowledge the voice of the patient – and their family – in medical care. Medicine cannot be reduced to the disease, but rather, must acknowledge the humanity and specific context of the individual. Second, and relatedly, medical science does not exist in a vacuum (as some seem to be suggesting) and we must acknowledge the sociopolitical reality that our patients and our science exist within. The video below, shared during Karen Drenkard’s plenary is a brilliant discussion starter for addressing the voice of the patient. In considering sociopolitical context, Winston Wong’s brilliant plenary on unconscious/implicit bias (which I hope was recorded – I will update this post if I find it somewhere) made great use of the Harvard Implicit Bias Tests. If you have never taken any of them, you truly should – they are a powerful eye-opener.

Other than the above, the main takeaways from the summit for me would have to be that I’m not convinced there is one “best” way to combat health illiteracy. The summit featured a dozen different ways that people are working on this issue – from setting up task forces in their institution to working one-on-one with folks in public health offices. All of these are necessary and important methods. I do hope that for future summits there might be more librarian attendance – which might lead to more programming targeted for librarians (of which, there were none specifically).

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All of that said, the big part of the summit this year was that it was my first time presenting as a speaker at a conference. I’ve postered before (and did here as well – see the header photo), but speaking is an entirely different ballgame. I was part of a joint breakout session discussing how the NNLM is working in health literacy. The first half was a joint effort by Elizabeth Kiscaden from the Greater Midwest Region (GMR) and Carolyn Martin from the Pacific Northwest Region (PNR), who did an amazing job of showing our resources and talking up funding opportunities. Then I took over as an example of the kind of activities that the NNLM offices can fund – in this case, a graphic medicine outreach initiative. My presentation was essentially a shortened, modified version of this webinar – tailored toward a more general healthcare audience rather than librarians (as there were only two in the room).

At the risk of tooting my own horn, my talk was fantastically received – to the point that every question in our Q&A part of the breakout was for me about using comics to discuss health topics. I am still – a week later – working to follow up with everyone who asked me questions that needed more detail and I’m awaiting word on potential collaborations as well. Interestingly, the best conversation to happen about comics at the summit was during the poster session with two people who missed the talk – Helen Osborne of health literacy fame (go listen to her podcast!) and Maricel Santos. We chatted for nearly half-an-hour about comics, health literacy, and a number of other things – with Maricel getting me interested in the linguistics of comics and the suggestion that there needs to be a day-long summit on graphic medicine. Now THAT is a great idea and some great networking!

All-in-all, attending this year’s WI Health Literacy Summit was a great opportunity and I highly recommend attending the next summit if you are able. You’ll meet great people, learn about their important work, and, if you decide to present, you’ll get amazing feedback. What do you have to lose?

If you want to see a semi-live stream of the conference, check out this Storify put together by my colleague from NNLM New England Region (NER), Margot Malachowski.

P.S. Wisconsin is where I was young and getting to go home is always a treat – so it is possible that my thoughts are a colored a little by being in Madison for a few days. But can you blame me when there is a spread like this:

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Traditional beer-battered cheddar cheese curds and a flight of WI craft beer at the famous ‘The Old Fashioned’ restaurant and bar in Madison, WI.

P.S.S. I was also able to make it to the Madison Public Library downtown and I must say they did a great job of renovating that space, making it modern and appealing to all manner of patrons, and their commitment to the social justice aspects of librarianship deserve to be commended. Here are just a few of the photos I snapped: