Dr. Teresa Wagner’s own experiences as a mother trying to help her daughters through two life-threatening health scares, misdiagnosis and providers’ failure to recognize critical symptoms ignited her passion to lead the charge for improved patient health literacy and better communication between physicians and patients across Texas.
In recognition of her efforts to bring about change in the ways people navigate and understand today’s complex healthcare environment, Dr. Wagner has been named as the 2018 Health Literacy Hero by the Health Literacy Collaborative, a network of healthcare professionals, educators, businesses and community members working for improvement and increased awareness of health literacy.
The award was presented at the partnership’s 14th Annual Texas Health Literacy Conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Dr. Wagner is assistant professor of health behavior and health systems at the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) School of Public Health and serves as Senior Fellow for Health Literacy at the UNTHSC Institute for Patient Safety.
She remembers the struggles her older daughter, then in college and living away from home, went through before it was finally discovered that she had appendicitis.
“The symptoms were getting worse; my daughter knew that what she was feeling wasn’t right, yet the physician continued to say it was something else, not that serious,” Dr. Wagner said. “Years later, at 27, she went through a similar situation with diverticulitis.”
Dr. Wagner’s younger daughter sought care for a different problem but ended up silently suffering in pain from an undiagnosed hormonal syndrome, after deciding not to go back to the physician who had told her the only thing wrong was that she needed to lose weight.
“When someone feels shamed, or that they are just not being listened to, they can end up living with symptoms that are often debilitating or even deadly,” Dr. Wagner said.
Age-related disparities can have a profound impact on health literacy, she said, with the most vulnerable populations being young people just learning to live on their own, roughly ages 18 to 23, and senior adults, who may be too frail or too ill to speak up for their own care.
Solutions point to a give-and-take relationship and clear, open, two-way communications between patients and their health providers, both in person and in the directions and medications provided.
“There are many facets to health literacy,” Dr. Wagner said. “Consider the pages and pages of discharge paperwork that patients receive when leaving the hospital. If patients have trouble understanding what they should do when they get home, the repercussions could be critical. Prescriptions, as well as recommendations sent home after a clinic or physician’s office visit, represent other good examples where instructions might be confusing. Revising these types of materials into plain language can make a real difference.”
As the result of a policy brief Dr. Wagner developed for the Texas State Health Committee and her testimony during the 2017 Texas legislative session, state leaders will be reviewing recommendations for improved health literacy actions in the 2019 legislative session.
“Five other states now have legislation, and others have centers dedicated to health literacy. The hope is that Texas will move forward in this direction as well,” she said.
Dr. Wagner’s current research interviewing administrators and leaders representing up to 80 different healthcare organizations across North Texas is giving her a unique opportunity to examine the health literacy challenges that exist in hospitals today, based on the National Academy of Medicine’s model for Attributes of a Health Literate Organization.
Through the study, each participating hospital will receive a report on the strengths and opportunities of their organization, as well as recommendations, training options and areas for collaborative health literacy efforts across healthcare systems.
Dr. Wagner is also involved in research related to the impact of health literacy on maternal health, birth outcomes and postnatal care.
“As a mom who has been there, my hope is that no patient has to go through what my daughters have endured. The push for greater awareness and improvements in health literacy has the power to change and save lives,” she said.