Disrupting Poor Health Literacy with Catina O’Leary

Estimated reading time: 3 minute(s)

Healthcare can be very difficult to understand. No one knows this better than Dr. Catina O’Leary. As president and CEO of the nation’s largest health literacy non-profit, Health Literacy Missouri, she has a unique perspective on just how challenging healthcare communication can be. Blending public health, design and communications research, Dr. O’Leary and her staff are helping health stakeholders get better outcomes from each interaction between patient and provider.

Cropped Catina OLeary and HLM Staff
Catina O’Leary (bottom left) and the rest of the Health Literacy Missouri Staff.

What is health literacy to you?

There are a lot of definitions, but at its core, health literacy is a person’s ability to find, understand and use health information. That’s the result we work toward. We help create and improve the systems to deliver that result. A lot of people don’t see the “use” part of health literacy, but I think that’s a mistake. If you don’t use it, what’s the point?

What’s an example of a win in health literacy?

Lots of things both big and small. We’re working with the state of Missouri on forms for enrolling in benefits, making simple changes to forms to help Missouri citizens get their benefits faster and more predictably. There can be an assumption that because something is legally required to say, that the way it is said to an individual has to be the way the regulators, judges, physicians or legislators talk to each other. Normal people, especially when they’re not feeling well, don’t communicate that way.

What prepared you for what you’re doing now?

I’m a social worker by training. I didn’t study health communication at all. I was doing research on people who were high risk for consequences related to HIV, drug risk and so on. I learned how to run projects with lots of complexity and protocols. We were having to build trust with people who have no reason to trust. I find that trust is at the core of health literacy, and one of the quickest ways to trust is clear communication, and empowering patients to ask questions when they don’t understand.

How, when and where do you do your best work?

I don’t think more work is better work. There’s a limit to the quality of work a person can do. We need to stop and do other things that rejuvenate and refresh us, whether that be creatively or motivationally. People tend to be happy here at Health Literacy Missouri because they’re doing high levels of work, but it’s not all of who they are.

How you would describe your POV on the world?

People matter. The relationships between us influence what we do, and how happy and functional we are. We can do things to influence each other and we should.

When have you failed and what did you learn?

Early on, I was a refusal converter doing studies—trying to get the most data possible from people after they’d dropped out of a study. My job was to find them, tracking them down if necessary, and have a direct connection with them. I had to learn a lot to succeed, to take care of myself so I could be authentic and communicate honestly. It taught me energy, empathy, thought and effort. Understanding why someone drops out can be as important as the data from them.

Favorite guilty pleasure?

I read a lot of fiction. A couple hundred books a year. All kinds–anything that people are talking about.

What productivity tools can you not live without?

I use tools that help me to take care of myself and I encourage the people working here to do the same. For us to communicate to others about how they communicate, we have to be pretty intentional about our habits. I can’t talk to someone about making wise choices about sleep, diet and self-care if I’m not doing it myself. I don’t send emails to staff at night or on weekends, even if I’m working then, because I’m conscious that just because I’m choosing to work then, as their boss it’s inappropriate to give the impression they should be, too.

What’s your go-to tool for the tough stuff?

When things are really hard, I just come back to my team. We look at what’s hard, discuss it and come to agreement on what to do about it. I can’t be alone in solving problems. If you’ve surrounded yourself with smart and thoughtful people, it only makes sense to go to them in the hard times.

Who else’s work do you admire and why?

I admire people working with wellness more broadly than just how we use our current tools. Brenda Battle at the University of Chicago and all the amazing work they’re doing with patient centered care. Also Kelly Ferrara at StratCommRx, with whom we do work on health insurance literacy. She maintains a network of something like 800 collaborators from all over. I really admire her ability to be in the moment with so many people, hear them out, connect them, move them forward. She can move a coalition forward like no one else I know.

How can people follow or connect with you (twitter, blog, events, etc.)?

I’m on Twitter at @CatinaOLeary or you can follow the whole Health Literacy Missouri team at  @HealthLitMO.