Fixing the Achilles’ heel of health literacy

The Institute for Healthcare Advancement is hosting the 20th Annual Virtual Health Literacy Conference on May 25-27, 2021. You can register for free and learn by attending live sessions on your device.

My contribution to the conference agenda is a poster about Constructive Health Competence (CHC), which combines health literacy with other useful skills that are likewise lacking across most of the population.

An image of the poster follows this text. The image is rather large and perhaps will be slow to open. Those who wish to read it can open it large in the browser or download it. In the conference, the poster is accompanied by my voice-over. I am inserting the script of that here.

This poster acknowledges an Achilles’ heel of health literacy. The crazy assumption that folks will understand and use the information they read.

That’s not true of many people. The average adult in our midst reads like a child in middle school. Half of all adults can’t even do that. Others read better, so long as the text isn’t health information.

That’s because health information is not written in a vernacular. It’s by and large a professional rhetoric, a technicalese that requires higher education to understand and use.

Yet health literacy is not a professional or cultivated competence. It’s just regular folks being able to understand their healthcare, in order to inform their medical choices and decisions.

We can agree that health literacy is an important skill, too important to let language get in the way. So this poster outlines a fix for the Achilles’ heel. The fix removes textual obstacles to understanding complex information, and replaces them with pleasurable sensations.

Sensations are the fodder of art and entertainment; in this case, AAA video games. Visual and behavioral sensations are catalyzed by game mechanics and aesthetics. This is the stuff of visceral experience rather than quiet study.

That’s why playing video games is constructive. A game is a multifaceted kit that lets players themselves build the knowledge and skills they need to win. And in our games, the way to win is to defeat the illness lurking within.

So, assume we disconnect health literacy from language literacy. Can we now build effective health promotion? Nay, more is wanted. We add scientific literacy, another competence that most folks lack. We provide opportunities for regular folks to understand and use biomedical and social sciences in the game. We believe they can and they will.

The project enhances these literacies with health acumen, an ability to deal with perplexing unknowns that make us afraid or angry or depressed or unable to resist. And with medical self-efficacy, the ability to get anxious clinical situations under personal control.

The poster sums it up as constructive health competence. And because CHC emerges in the magic circle of play, regular folks can get into it. They can escape from suffering into a fantasy that brings them back to their true selves. Selves that are not dominated by chronic illness.

Copyright 2021 Humaginarium LLC

Solace of Art

People do what is good only when they want to.

Last week, when I found myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary didn’t come to me. She was in a different neighborhood of Minneapolis with other matters to attend.

The trouble I found that day was not racist murder in the street, but mass murder in the air. Not perpetrated by four deranged police officers, but thousands of passive-aggressive shoppers and sales associates at The Home Depot. Most of whom were utterly indifferent to Covid-19. I watched as they crowded into and out of the big box emporium, with checklists and parcels, without face coverings or hand sanitizers — NIH and CDC be damned! I watched and wondered: have I witnessed a more convincing demonstration of ingrained stupidity? Ever? I have not.

I sometimes refer to regular folks like those at The Home Depot as Joe and Ms. Sixpack — thus trying to dignify a condescending meme coined by a political moron more than ten years ago. I have claimed — without much evidence — that the Sixpack clan will overcome their acute health illiteracy and risky habits, their blimpy form factors and medication maladroitness, and they will take better care of themselves and their families, if only they are better informed about the science of the body and nudged to wellness. My self-appointed job is to inform and nudge; their job is to be happy and live in peace.

As a passionate health promoter, I have watched for months as governments and the fourth estate flooded the entire population with health information (scientific and otherwise), across all media, at all times of the day and night, from every conceivable point of view. A sentient adult cannot by now be ignorant of the incurable and unpreventable Covid-19, nor of the potentially mortal consequences of being infected or infecting others, nor of the ONLY ways to control it: social distancing and personal hygiene. According to my understanding of the Sixpacks, this worldwide tsunami of health promotion delivered more than enough information to warrant their high health literacy and acumen from coast to coast, at least when it comes to communicable disease.

To judge by my observations in Minneapolis, I was wrong. The Sixpacks were blithely committing mass murder in public and private spaces like The Home Depot in Minneapolis, where coronavirus can freely swirl into faces and smear onto the hands of every incautious person who happens to be present, and afterwards into and onto everybody else they meet. Given the quality of health promotion that preceded this dreadful historical moment, the pandemic should not be continuing now. Yet more than 100,000 deaths and more than a million infections later, with dire predictions of a nasty resurgence coming in the autumn, the evidence so far seems to show that health promotion doesn’t work and doesn’t matter in the United States.

I don’t accept that conclusion, but at the same time concur that it’s reasonable. After all, Humaginarium was founded on a premise that traditional health promotion — including health education — doesn’t work and has never worked well; that a different approach is needed to produce a different outcome. The rationale being that people will do what is good for them and others only when they want to. This new approach is conditioned by the solace of art.

Art is using the imagination to create and experience beautiful things. Art has existed as long as Homo sapiens; it is arguably what makes us human. Solace is the comfort we give or seek in grief, the alleviation of pain or fear or anger or anxiety. As a word for being cheered up and amused despite sorrow, solace has been around since the 12th century.

A few hundred years after solace entered the Middle English lexicon, a poet named John Donne wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). In these lines, he both defined and exemplified the solace of art: its power to heal and encourage, no matter what the circumstances are.

How does art do this? By writing a prescription? No. By telling the Sixpacks what to do? No. By making them oblivious or stupid? No. By improving their healthcare? No. Art works by facilitating understanding, choices and decisions to do what is right and good for ourselves and for others we rely on, and who rely on us.

I’m giving you a particular Devotion below without further explanation; you’re an adult, you’ll figure out what it means without my help, if you want to. But I’m giving it to you with an earnest request in these times of trouble: that you read it slowly and slowly think about its meaning. What it means not to me or to society or history or Ernest Hemingway, but to you individually and personally, right now.

Because believe it or not, you yourself are the most beautiful and wonderful thing in all of creation, and you deserve to be happy and healthy, and you have the right to demand it, and the power to achieve it. And now in memory of George Floyd and with love for every person who will someday come to Humaginarium with an illness that may never end, I declare and insist that no person is an island; and that even one person’s needless suffering or death diminishes us all.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by John Donne
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


What one observes and what one imagines are mutually reinforcing.

Last week I poured a dollop of health literacy and a gobbet of health acumen into a shaker, and shook. Shaken thus (not stirred), they yield a heady cocktail known as self-determination. Why does that matter? Because the self is the most instrumental determinant of health outcomes. Literacy and acumen each by itself informs and weighs; together they empower.

I always call this cocktail “scientific entertainment,” an oxymoron that evokes what Humaginarium is about. We know what entertainment is: it is art; it is artifice that tells the truth and gives pleasure; it is amusement, enjoyment, fun that replaces what actually is with what might or should be in a world of our own making. Everybody knows what entertainment is because everybody needs it, wants it, pays for and uses it; goes out of their way to get it and feels anxious or frustrated when they don’t get enough. But what about scientific? Most of us use that word without knowing (or maybe even caring) what it means.

Science is knowledge; or more precisely systematized knowledge; or more precisely still, systematized knowledge that results from observation and investigation, and that is consistent with evidence. That last bit is the main difference between science and art. Both generate knowledge, but science is empirical while art is philosophical. No big deal. Many people believe that one is more valuable, practical, truthful, influential than the other, but they are wrong. Not only are science and art equal in importance, but each is incomplete and hobbled without the other. Art and science together are another heady cocktail whose parts may also be enjoyed separately, but why on earth would you?

The usual answer is, because science is hard whereas art is easy. Science is technical whereas art is creative. Science is boring whereas art is exciting. Scientific insight resists and eludes discovery and application, whereas artistic insight just lies there waiting to be apprehended, and is useless. All of these contradistinctions are drivel: they just aren’t true. Yet we organize many civilized endeavors, including health promotion, according to our beliefs in them.

I say “scientific entertainment” to prevent the two concepts from coming apart at Humaginarium. My oxymoron is a frank declaration that empiricism and philosophy are not, or should not be, distinguishable. I push this to the farthest extreme by dovetailing the most erudite of all sciences (biomedicine) with the silliest of all arts (fantasy). For Humaginarium, when it comes to health and well-being, what one observes and what one imagines are mutually reinforcing. Always! I am, therefore I think; I think, therefore I am. (Descartes got it half right.)

You will not find health acumen mentioned by the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their campaigns of health promotion. Only health literacy. The reason for that is probably because literacy is scientific; acumen is fluff. Consequently, because of this scientific bias, their institutional essays on health literacy are generally unsatisfactory, futile, trivial, beside the point. Humaginarium hopes to improve the balance.

Nor will you find WHO and CDC tipping their hats to the arts as they bow to science, except on very rare occasions. Artists have no seats at the table of health promotion; all of the permanent seats are occupied by scientists and clinicians. Is that right and proper? No, it isn’t; it is disastrous. At Humaginarium we hope to do something about that as well.

Our hopes are not effusions of a company that has a dissociative identity disorder. Humaginarium is not trying to meld things that don’t belong together. We are not trying to be clever by getting funky with subject matter that is essentially technical. We are merely doing what needs to be done to break the cognitive chains that hold down the 98% whom I mentioned last week. Science can’t do it alone.

Or to put it a different way, we are making a heady new cocktail that is greater — far greater — than the sum of its parts. Shaken thus (not stirred).


88% of American adults have reading skills equal or inferior to a child in middle school.

Literacy is the ability to read a vernacular. In the United States, about 18% of all adults are functionally illiterate. Either they can’t read at all, or their reading skills are less than basic: at best, equivalent to a competent third grader’s, 8-9 years old.

About 34% of American adults are basically literate. They can glean simple information from printed matter, but not make much use of it. At best, their reading skills are equivalent to a competent fifth grader’s, 10-11 years old.

About 36% of American adults are functionally literate. They can understand the meaning of straightforward text, but can’t parse or interpret it for implications and consequences. They have workaday reading skills, at best equivalent to a competent eighth grader’s, 13-14 years old.

All of that said, about 88% of American adults have reading skills equal or inferior to a child in middle school. Leaving only about 12% with purported “adult” literacy. Hold on, that’s actually an overstatement.

About 10% of adult Americans have adolescent literacy: reading skills equivalent to a competent tenth grader’s, 15-16 years old. Only a tiny 2% of all Americans have genuine adult literacy, the kind of reading comprehension that is mandatory for higher education and professional endeavor.

I had to give this context in order to introduce the topic of health literacy: an ability to read the vernacular of health care. The vernacular of health care is the text printed on forms, handouts and signage in clinical and pharmaceutical settings. It’s the text in books, articles and websites with health-related subject matter. Most health-related subject matter is applied or theoretical science. For example, it’s not about how to use soap (function); it’s about why soap produces better health outcomes (cognition).

The vernacular of health care varies quite a lot — from papers in the New England Journal of Medicine at the high end to printouts stapled to prescriptions at Walgreens — but all of it has this in common: it is practically unreadable and therefore useless for around 98% of American adults.

When Humaginarium announced, at its founding, that it will promote health literacy at scale, it rose to an enormous challenge that generally goes unnoticed, despite its gargantuan economic costs and impact on health disparities. We had to come up with a way to promote adult health literacy across a population that overwhelming lacks adult literacy of any kind. Now we have done that. We have invented a way that should work well for the first 87 million adults who use it; and we are preparing to build and test a prototype of this amazing innovation. That is kind of exciting.

However our research also exposed some deflating limits of health literacy. Even if and when we demonstrate and prove exquisite technology that increases the health literacy of most American adults, will their newfound literacy effectively ameliorate health disparities among them? Put another way, will mastery of the vernacular of health care actually make most people healthier, happier and more secure?

The answer is no, it will not. The best outcome we (or anybody) can expect from adult health literacy is more participative medicine. By that I mean better quality of communication between patients and their clinicians and makers of medicines. That’s a pretty good outcome, but not good enough. It is not the game changer we seek.

To finish the job we started, we also have to promote health acumen. That is the key to medical self-efficacy. Acumen is an ability not just to read, but to exercise good judgement; to make healthy choices in the absence of external direction and authority; to possess keenness and depth of perception when observing what is obvious to any inquiring mind; to discern what is going on below the skin and the palpable symptoms in a body; and to discriminate between meaningful and false signals from blood, flesh and bones.

Understood thus, health literacy is no guarantor of health acumen. It’s just a prerequisite. Because without mastery of the vernacular of health care, critical thinking that fosters acumen must be so profoundly impaired that it’s practically impossible. People cannot exercise good judgement if they are grossly ignorant of the relevant science; and biomedicine is not the stuff of middle school.

This is why I no longer say that Humaginarium promotes health literacy at scale. Instead I say that Humaginarium promotes health literacy and health acumen at scale. Not just for the 2% who already have their linguistic ducks in a row, but for the 98% whose ducks are paddling aimlessly around the pond while the sky over their heads darkens; those who foolishly hope or expect the health care industry to make healthy choices for rather than with them. To have health acumen is to believe that “I will figure this out; I will decide; and I will make my decisions stick, come hell or high water.”

Like Gandalf, Humaginarium has found a way. We found our version of Thrór’s Map and a key that opens the door in the Lonely Mountain of health care. Beyond that adamantine door, Smaug is dreaming atop a gleaming horde of stolen treasure. After a long and perilous journey, Humaginarium is coming for him.