Literacy: a pediatrician’s secret weapon to improve long-term health

UNC Children’s employs novel programs to improve literacy among clinic patients as a means to also improve health outcomes.

Reading is something we do to understand, learn, entertain, or even relax. Would you believe that literacy also has health ramifications? It’s true.

In fact, studies have shown that adults who read well tend to have better health outcomes than those with limited reading skills. More specifically, those with limited literacy tend to have lower rates of health screenings, more frequent emergency department visits, and also more hospitalizations. In addition, children whose parents have low health literacy tend to exhibit worse health behaviors at home, and their health outcomes have been shown to be adversely impacted by their parent’s limited reading ability.

Given this research, pediatricians have a vested in interest in improving patients’ health and well-being by promoting literacy and early language development. A quick and easy tool used in our clinics includes asking children during clinic visits: “What book are you reading now?” This not only gives us pediatricians a way to bond and have a discussion with our patients, but it also offers us some important insights into their reading levels and ability to understand the information we’ll be discussing with them and their parents.

We have instituted a number of programs aimed at improving the literacy of young children at N.C. Children's Hospital. These programs include:

  • Book give-aways and reading at clinic visits. The outpatient clinic waiting rooms have bookshelves filled with donated books that children and families are encouraged to take home and read. Often times we also have volunteers in the lobby reading to children while they wait for their appointment to begin.

  • Reach Out and Read. Our primary care clinic gives away a new, high-quality children’s book and incorporates early literacy advice into every well child checkup from age 6 months to 5 years.

  • Two to Talk Language Toolkits. Our providers screen toddlers for language delays at each clinic visit. If mild delays are identified, we provide parents a toolkit to assist their child with language development through mutual play, including finger puppets, a book, building blocks, and colorful cards.

  • Brush, Book, Bed. This program combines oral health, reading, and sleep. We provide families of 9- to 12-month-old children a toothbrush, toothpaste, an oral-health focused book with instructions on how to use them in combination to develop a bedtime routine that will lead to high quality sleep.

Research has clearly demonstrated that office-based literacy programs, particularly Reach Out and Read, help increase children’s vocabulary, improve their school readiness and, over time, better academic performance.

Office-based literature programs can also reduce disparities in the amount of reading that happens between various families. At UNC specifically, we have found reading programs to be especially helpful for the approximately 10 percent of clinic parents that have low literacy levels. Helping the children of those parents raise their literacy rate increases their chances of success in life.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Next time grab a book when you’re eating that apple!

Submitted by Michael Steiner, MD

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