Written by Shala Hainer Wednesday, October 26 2011
Snapshot: Ruth Parker, physician
Dr. Ruth Parker is a professor of medicine and public health at Emory University in Atlanta. She is board certified in internal medicine and pediatric medicine, but she focuses her research efforts on increasing health literacy from two angles: teaching doctors to recognize and act on health literacy issues with their patients and advocating for increased patient literacy. She is well known for her research, often being called upon by news and governmental agencies as a resource. She co-authored the most widely used definition of health literacy, helped develop the Test of Functional Health Literacy in Adults, and has written many informational papers on the topic of health literacy.
She serves as a leader in advocating for increased health literacy, having worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation “Literacy and Health Care” project, the American Medical Association, and the Institute of Medicine Health Literacy Committee. Parker has received several national awards for her work, such as the Silver Achievement Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Walter C. Alvarez Award from the American Medical Writers Association, and the U.S. FDA Advisory Committee Service Award.
A mother of four, Parker lives in Atlanta with her husband, Paul, who is a pediatric surgeon.
Womenetics: What event or discovery led you to focus on health literacy?
Ruth Parker: When I worked at Grady Hospital, I noticed patients who couldn't read pill bottles. We had conducted a clinical study in the 1980s that was a quick survey regarding waiting times in the emergency room, which we discovered was sometimes eight to 16 hours. It was hard to understand why people would wait that long. Then I asked a hospital administrator if the patients could read. He said most of them could, about two-thirds of them. But what about the other one-third? I had been to medical school, I had climbed up the ladder as faculty, but I didn't know that literacy was a problem. There was no real information out there about the problem. The onus is on us at a system level to change and meet people where they are while trying to educate people and make them more literate.
Womenetics: How big a problem is a lack of health literacy?
Parker: There are 90 million people in the United States who don't know how to read a medical bottle, and 20 percent of patients can't circle an appointment date on a slip from the doctor. Education and health are linked, which we've known for a long time. But what we need to know is: What are your functional abilities as a patient in the health care system? Can you act on the information you're given for your health? We've created a culture where it's embarrassing to not have what everyone else has. We need to do what we can do to create an environment that helps people feel not alone.
Womenetics: You're integrating technology in your literacy outreach. Tell us about Text for Babies.
Parker: Women are the brokers of health information and content for many families, so it's important to focus on women in the health care system. I'm working with Text for Babies, which is a three-year initiative that is free with all mobile carriers to pregnant women and women with newborns, for one year. This provides actionable and navigable health information relevant to them. We're about to roll it out in Russia as well.
Womenetics: What are some ways the medical community can increase health literacy?
Parker: Professional education, targeting everyone who is a part of health services, wherever they are – community, state level, anywhere in the country. And that goes all the way out to anyone providing health information, including providers like agencies, insurance companies as well as one-on-one in an exam room. All the way up and down the chain. Looking to make sure people understand what it is they need to know and doing that by really checking to ensure that the understanding is there and owning the obligation to make sure people who need information have it.
Womenetics: How would you suggest women get involved in their local communities to combat this problem?
Parker: I think there are multiple ways to do it, and I certainly think one way is through educational efforts that support learning health content. That can be done through formal school systems. In many school systems, health issues have become sort of “rainy day” subjects, not included on the tests, and basic skills in health are not a routine part of traditional education all the way from pre-K through technical school and colleges. So advocating for health content to be a routine part of education wherever they are is a way women can get involved. Also, women can serve as advocates for communities and providers of all types to make good information accessible, understandable, and something you can navigate and act on. So be a voice for having content provided that's good content.
Womenetics: Why is improved health literacy important to us as a community?
Parker: It's really foundational: If you don't understand, how do you know what to do for your health? It's really a fundamental primer to make sure you understand what it is you need to know. Knowledge is the base, then promoting good attitudes, and, at the end of the day, encouraging good behaviors, although knowledge alone doesn't always lead to good behaviors. It is absolutely fundamental that people understand what it is they need to do.
Womenetics: You've received several awards for your work. What do these awards mean to you?
Parker: Well, my teenage daughters tell me it's the scariest thing in the world that anyone would ever want to listen to somebody like me. So to be perfectly honest with you, hopefully the awards don't mean too much. I think what's more important is to be a part of something that hopefully will help people. It's always gratifying, it's nice when somebody notices it, but what's more important to me is whether or not we can move the needle and try to truly improve the health literacy in our country and in other places.
Womenetics: What is the next step in your mission to improve health communications? You already mentioned expanding the Text for Babies to Russia. What else is coming up?
Parker: I'm involved in a large research effort with others from around the country to try to build a better system of medication labels. It's a very active area involving some really good folks, very devoted to health literacy. I also work a lot with the Institute of Medicine to help on a health literacy roundtable, which is part of the National Academies of Science here in the United States. It brings together stakeholders from multiple segments, from industry, from federal agencies, from professional societies, to try to figure out how we can collaboratively set goals and work together, so I really enjoy being a part of the team. It's a great area because it draws nice people, so I feel very fortunate to be a part of something where I get to work with some great people and hopefully make a difference.
I would say I think the hardest part of communication is learning to listen, being a good listener. Many of the important strides in health literacy will come from listening. It's upon all of us to figure out how to become better listeners.
Womenetics: What do you like to do when you're not working?
Parker: I love to run. I love to play tennis. I'm very interested and could speak passionately about women and their engagement in physical activity and sports, across the lifespan. And I'm really interested in girls and young women as they age staying involved in physical activity and sports. I do love to run; I love to run marathons. I'm not fast, but I have a great time. And I love being a part of community projects that engage people in fitness. It's not about racing; it's about participating. My goal is to run until I'm 100. I won't do that running a race – I'll do that by knowing how long it is.
Womenetics: Tell us about your family.
Parker: I have four children, ages 19, 21, 23, and 25. My son is a professional tennis player, playing on a dime right now in Turkey. He says that doing this, or trying to do it, is his grad school. I have a daughter who finished in accounting who is in law school now, and I have another one who is a philosophy major, a junior, and I have another one who is majoring in sciences, a sophomore. My husband would say we have four only children. They're all very different, all out there figuring it out. I have the same husband of 34 years, my best friend, Paul Parker. He's a pediatric surgeon here in Atlanta at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.