The National Minority Quality Forum recently recognized Donney John, PharmD, executive director of NOVA Scripts Central, as one of “40 Under 40 Leaders in Health” for 2017. This Award honors influential young minority leaders, including physicians, pharmacists, dentists, nurses, policy experts, researchers and others, who are making a difference in health care around the United States. Here, Dr. John talks about the importance of health literacy and education from a leader’s perspective.
To me, being a leader in health means empowering people in underserved communities with compassion, understanding and education. It means meeting people where they are and helping them live their everyday lives more healthfully.
An event I participated in a year ago with a mobile farmer’s market called Arcadia Farms illustrates this point beautifully. NOVA Scripts Central, the nonprofit pharmacy I work for, had a table at a farmer’s market in Baileys Crossroads where we provided education on food and drug interactions.
People were eager for this information—and shocked by what they learned. They didn’t know, for example, that eating too many green leafy vegetables can reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners, or that you should avoid grapefruit juice if you take certain cholesterol-lowering medications. Here they were, at a farmer’s market, shopping for healthy foods, yet they didn’t know that they also had to take their medications into consideration.
They are like so many patients who want to manage their heath better but don’t know what they need to do. They go to their doctors, but they don’t fully understand what the doctors tell them about their health conditions or the medications they’re prescribing. They don’t know what questions to ask or how to raise concerns with their doctors.
A lot of what’s wrong in health care derives from this fundamental gap in communication. That’s why I have dedicated my career to advancing health literacy and cultural competency. As health professionals, I believe it’s our job to make it easier for patients to engage in their health.
That means doing our best to understand the people who come to us for care. What barriers do they face to health? Do they have stable housing and access to reliable transportation? What are their diets like? These questions may not have much to do with health care, but they have everything to do with health. After all, if you’re couch-surfing because you can’t afford a place to live, you’re not likely to spend money on prescription medications.
No one chooses to be sick. But sometimes people in underserved communities don’t have many choices available to them. It’s not always easy or even possible to make healthy choices in their everyday lives or attend to their health when they have problems. How do you provide nutritious meals for your family when you’re surrounded by convenience stories and fast-food restaurants and the nearest supermarket is two bus rides away? How do you see a doctor if it means losing a day’s pay?
Patients need—and deserve—our empathy. It’s on us to meet them where they are.
Sometimes that means going to a farmer’s market. At the event in Baileys Crossroads, I met not only with adults but with kids, introducing them to fruits and vegetables that would give them “super powers.” I told them that eating carrots would give them “super vision” and taught them the difference between a cucumber and a zucchini, which, they pointed out, look very similar. It was fun, and we all learned.
Sometimes meeting people where they are means partnering with local organizations, like the Junior League of Northern Virginia. At one of their kid-friendly events last year on cooking and nutrition, NOVA Scripts Central staffed a table for parents to learn about food allergies and how to avoid them. We showed them how to use an EpiPen; we talked to them about peanut allergies and how you can’t use a certain inhaler if you’re allergic to peanuts. They were extremely grateful for this information.
At sometimes it means using technology, especially mobile apps that have become such a big part of people’s daily lives. I’m passionate about the power of technology to engage and empower people, and I’m determined to make the needs of minority patients heard in the mobile app space. That’s a big part of what I do now, working as a medical advisor to various start-up companies on solutions that involve patients in their own care and enable them to make informed decisions.
And as executive director of NOVA Scripts Central, which serves uninsured and low-income patients in Northern Virginia, I work to both educate and advocate on behalf of people in underserved communities.
This is all work that I love, and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity. If this is what being a health leader is all about, then I hope to remain one throughout my career.
NOVA Scripts Central is a grantee of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation.