There’s an old pharmacy saying that you have to educate before you medicate. Indeed, as a pharmacist, I view education as a big part of my job.
I’m not talking about instructing people on how to take their medications. That kind of education, though important, is not nearly enough on its own.
I’m talking about getting people to understand why they need medication in the first place. Why do you have diabetes? Why do you have heart disease? And what can you do about it?
People often have misconceptions about health. And if they don’t understand what goes into good health, they’re probably not going to lead very healthy lives.
Since 2007, NOVA ScriptsCentral, with support from the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, has provided $56 million worth of free or low-cost medications to uninsured patients in the Northern Virginia area. We help over 3,000 people a year.
Yet, there is a limit to how much good we can do this way. Funding, after all, is limited.
Knowledge, however, is not.
That’s why we’ve been taking health education on the road, to meet people where they are and provide them with information that is both meaningful and easy to understand. Since April, we have been holding free health education sessions, including four at public libraries in Northern Virginia, that address topics like skin care, heart disease, and insurance coverage.
I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing. People want this kind of information. They want to be healthy. But they need to understand the choices they have and how those choices affect their health. They also need to know what resources are available to them and they need solutions that are feasible.
For example, when talking about healthy eating, we can’t simply tell people to buy organic fruits and vegetables at an upscale supermarket. That’s not an option for many people.
But we can ask them: If you take your cholesterol medicine but then go out and eat a cheeseburger and watch TV on the sofa all night, have you really made a change in your life? When they see the connection between their behavior and their health, they may be motivated to move in the right direction.
We do our best to make each presentation visual and engaging. It’s a bit like telling a story. For example, kidney disease can be a complication of diabetes. In trying to explain how the kidney works, we compared it to a coffee filter. Over time, the filter becomes less effective and needs to be cleaned, and that’s why you need medication. In the worst-case scenario, you may need a transplant.
People ask us all kinds of questions—about risks to their health, home remedies, stigma associated with certain conditions, the medications they take, and what their health plans will pay for.
One event we hosted with the Junior League of Northern Virginia focused on allergic reactions. We created an educational poster with easy-to-understand visuals that described what allergies are, how they differ, and what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. We had a big turnout on a rainy day, and people asked a lot of great questions. They really wanted this information; they appreciated that having it could save lives and they were grateful to us for sharing it with them.
Sometimes people need guidance on how to have a conversation with their health care provider. Often a person will say to me: “My doctor has told me about this, but I didn’t understand it until now.”
Or perhaps they want advice on how to persuade a family member to make a change. Last summer, after a session on skin care, a Latina woman told me how her teenage son refused to put on sunscreen before going outside because he didn’t believe he was at risk. She asked me for my presentation so that she could share it with him.
We had a similar experience at church community event, where attendees asked us to come back and present again, so that they could bring friends and family members.
These are exactly the kinds of things that we want to happen. We want the conversations that we start during these education sessions to continue when people go home. We want them to share information with their family members and friends. That’s how we spread knowledge—and, hopefully, get them to change their behavior to improve their health.
Donney John is the executive director of NOVA ScriptsCentral, a grantee of the Northern Virginia Health Foundation and a nonprofit pharmacy that provides medications to uninsured patients in the Northern Virginia area.