Lessons Learned from the 2019 Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit


Last week professionals from diverse industries interested in improving health outcomes through better patient communication converged on Madison to attend the bi-annual Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit. One theme that emerged repeatedly was the notion that persuasion is personal.

Positive behavior change rarely occurs unless a healthcare intervention connects on a deeper level with a patient. This does not mean that a doctor and a patient must be BFFs for care to be successful but understanding key patient drivers and motivators is necessary for true engagement to take place.

Considerable emphasis is traditionally placed on the comprehension aspect of health literacy. After all, we cannot expect positive health outcomes if healthcare directives are not communicated and/or understood well. This tendency to focus on clarity and plain language, however, often results in less attention given to a critical component of health communication – recognizing and tapping into patient values.

“Speaking the same language” is not merely about using a shared system of verbal and written communication (e.g., English or Spanish), but about appealing to patients’ guiding principles. When a health-centered approach is misaligned with a community’s beliefs and passions, it is virtually impossible for healthcare providers to connect with their patients. We must meet patients where they are and talk directly to what motivates them, not demand that they meet us where we are and respond to what we deem important.

Marketers have long understood this aspect of human psychology. Over a century ago, Washington Atlee Burpee, founder of the iconic Burpee Seed Company, recognized that “People don’t care about my seeds; they care about their gardens.” Appealing to their sense of value, the destination (i.e., their core motivation) versus the vehicle used to arrive at that destination was the key. To effectively motivate patients to make beneficial health decisions, we must remember to talk about “their gardens” more than we talk about “the seeds.”


Bill Stone

Director, Content Strategy


Overall themes and anecdotes shared in the following 2019 Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit sessions inspired and informed the content of this two-part article:


  • Dean Schillinger, MD – The Power of Community Voice: Enhancing Public Health Literacy for Vulnerable Populations
  • Matthew Kreuter, PhD, MPH – Lessons Learned from 25 Years of Communication Research to Improve Public Health and Eliminate Health Disparities
  • Linda Shepard, MSN, RN – Peer Leader Navigators Improve Health Literacy in Immigrant and Refugee Communities in Anchorage, Alaska