Health Literacy: Bridging the Gaps in Language, Culture, and Health

by Sara Suter, MPH Candidate ‘16

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This sentiment, expressed by Margaret Mead and often mentioned at health literacy conferences, also describes the dedicated work of Sabrina Kurtz-Rossi, MEd.

Kurtz-Rossi is assistant professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at TUSM, director of the Health Literacy Leadership Institute, principle of Kurtz-Rossi & Associates, and an active member of the Clear Language Group. She is nationally recognized for her health literacy curriculum development, which is used in adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes. Currently, she is working on developing a curriculum for Literacy for Life.

Kurtz-Rossi’s training as an educator introduced her to health literacy when it was an emerging field. Through her work in health literacy, she is able to build a bridge between the fields of adult literacy and public health.

A common definition of health literacy, cited by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in their 2004 report Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion, is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Kurtz-Rossi further explains the term, “we must also focus on reducing the complexity of the health care system.” She adds, “I apply critical learning theory in my work to improve health literacy to go beyond teaching for understanding to teaching for change.”   

Domestically, health literacy has a focus on access to healthcare and quality improvement, whereas internationally, health literacy is more population-based and public health-oriented. According to Kurtz-Rossi, “Training health professionals and working with communities as a whole,” would help improve health literacy in the U.S. and across the globe.

A lack of opportunity for health literacy professional development in the field led Kurtz-Rossi to develop the Health Literacy Leadership Institute, a week-long course held each June as part of the School of Medicine’s Health Communication Program. Currently in its fifth year, the institute promotes peer learning and sharing of research and best practice among professionals directly engaged in health literacy. This March, Kurtz-Rossi also hosted the two-day Plain Language Writing and Design Workshop, a collaboration between CommunicateHealth and the School of Medicine, with funding from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine New England Region.

Kurtz-Rossi received the 2015-2016 Health Literacy Teaching Award from the Association for Prevention Teaching and Research (APTR). She plans to use the award funding to expand her health literacy work beyond the U.S. to a global audience. To support this goal, she recently presented at the International Conference on Health Literacy and Healthcare Efficiency sponsored by the Asian Health Literacy Association in Taiwan.

By bringing her health literacy work into the classroom, Kurtz-Rossi is helping to inspire new public health professionals to reduce health inequities. She remains steadfast in her work while welcoming opportunities to teach and share her passion for health literacy. Follow her blog and learn about upcoming events at: