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In local program, reading has been key to health

A Basic Skills class at the Literacy Project in Greenfield has been learning health literacy in their classes, thanks to a grant from Baystate Franklin Medical Center. From left are Chris Ewing of Greenfield, Peggy Gregorka of Greenfield, Literacy Project Director Judith Roberts, Volunteer Lesley Pollitt and Patrick Gardner of Montague.
(Recorder/Paul Franz)

A Basic Skills class at the Literacy Project in Greenfield has been learning health literacy in their classes, thanks to a grant from Baystate Franklin Medical Center. From left are Chris Ewing of Greenfield, Peggy Gregorka of Greenfield, Literacy Project Director Judith Roberts, Volunteer Lesley Pollitt and Patrick Gardner of Montague. (Recorder/Paul Franz)

GREENFIELD — A medical brochure on display gives tips on how to avoid the flu. A doctor sends a patient home with instructions to stay healthy. The state invites a person to sign up for new health insurance coverage online.

These seemingly routine occurrences all have one thing in common: they involve documents that are unintelligible to someone who does not know how to read.

“We have health care for all ... but access is difficult for folks with low literacy,” said Judith Roberts, executive director of the Literacy Project. The nonprofit adult education organization has been teaching health literacy to students in Greenfield and Orange for the past 15 months, funded by a $25,000 grant from Baystate Franklin Medical Center.

The health literacy classes, which run for a few hours each week as part of the students’ free classes, aim to remove some of the barriers that prevent students from living a healthy lifestyle. Students have compared foods by studying their nutritional labels, they’ve heard from medical experts on topics like exercise and smoking cessation and they’ve worked together to analyze medical brochures.

Roberts said that students have requested this type of instruction for years. There’s about 45 students across the two Franklin County sites and most use government-funded health insurance.

But the literacy barrier means that they may not realize everything for which they are qualified, she said. Some still turn to the emergency room every time they have a medical question, even for minor things like head colds or fevers.

Louise Barrows, instructor and director of the Greenfield site, has noticed a change in her students since the program began. Weekly visits from a local nutritionist led students to keep their own food journals at home, she said, which slowly led to improvements in the snacks they brought to class. Soda, doughnuts and candy were gradually replaced by water bottles, carrot sticks, yogurt and granola.

It’s also been helpful for students on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federally funded “food stamp” program, she said.

“How do you eat healthy when you have a very small pot of money to last you for a month?” said Barrows. “This was a good way to look at other options ... that could help stretch their food budgets but also help their bodies to be healthier and get a little exercise in, too.”

Baystate Franklin Medical Center awarded the Literacy Project a $25,000 grant in January 2013 as one of two public health projects in the county. The other, run by the Cooperative Public Health Service, aims to improve elders’ medical awareness and self-care.

Amy Swisher, who co-chairs the hospital’s community benefits advisory council, said the health literacy project will “have a great ripple effect” in Franklin County and beyond.

“As the students become more health literate themselves, this has an impact on their families, too,” said Swisher, “from better understanding the language of medicine and health care to making healthier lifestyle choices.”

The grant also called for a student-led “health review board” that has periodically analyzed Massachusetts Department of Public Health brochures, to see if low-literate adults can read and understand them.

The students have, for the most part, given the state documents passing grades. During a review session this past summer in Orange, for instance, students found that the brochure “Flu Facts: What you need to know” was easy to read, thanks in part to helpful accompanying graphics.

But they did submit some proposed revisions to the state. Students were unsure why some items on a “50 Things Every Pregnant Woman Should Know” brochure were highlighted in blue. They also noticed that this brochure was made in 2000, which led them to question whether they were reading the most accurate and updated information.

The grant, which will end on June 30, paid for staff time and the hiring of some outside consultants. Roberts is hoping to record the curriculum that’s been used so that lessons can continue, even when grant funding is over.

The Baystate Health system, which built a $45 million emergency room in Springfield in 2012, is obligated by the state to give out $2 million in grants toward community health programs. Baystate Franklin’s slice of the pie is $150,000 and the hospital’s community benefits advisory council will soon request proposals for the next round of grant-funded public health projects.

While the hospital may choose to give additional funding to the current two projects, it could decide to target the money toward a specific public health issue, like the recent scourge of heroin addiction in Franklin County.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

Great idea. Great project!

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