From Fotonovelas to Field Work: Creative Approaches to Health Literacy Highlighted at a May 25 L.A. Conference

Published on
May 21, 2010

Melvin Baron has spent his career educating the public about health and medicine, first as a pharmacist and then as a USC Associate Professor of Clinical Pharmacy. He's 77 now, and he confesses to some frustration with the handouts that pharmacists and doctors use to inform patients about health and medicine.

"Much of what we give you is lousy," he told me. "It's a lot of words. Most of it is way above the audience. It doesn't resonate and it's boring."

Dr. Baron set out to do something about this about five years ago, using bi-lingual "fotonovelas" to educate Los Angeles' Spanish speakers about health issues such as diabetes, depression, asthma control and the importance of taking folic acid during pregnancy to prevent birth defects.

Sometimes, it pays to go low-tech

When he first told me about the "fotonovelas," I immediately assumed that he had come up with a nifty, photo slideshow on steroids, an immersive, 3-D, online photo world, perhaps. So I was mildly disappointed when I opened an envelope he mailed to find two, old-fashioned looking photo comic books, written in English and Spanish. I became a fan, however, as I began to read the fun, provocatively melodramatic storylines of a soap opera, told in photos, with comic strip-style bubbles for dialogue.

The comic books borrow from what once used to be a popular and flourishing trade in Mexico in photo comic books. Fotonovelas pre-date telenovelas, the soap operas on Spanish-language television.  As Dr. Baron has learned, it's surprisingly complex to create one of the simply-written 28-page fotonovelas, but  evaluation results show that his approach works in conveying health messages. He hires actors to perform the scenes shown in the photos and his team has even commissioned the creation of original masks for the lucha libre fighters featured in one of the comic book soap operas. The cost of one bilingual comic book, he says, is $100,000.

Join the Conversation during USC's Conference on Health Literacy

Baron's project represents just one of the creative approaches that will be discussed at a conference Tuesday, May 25, at USC's Galen Center on Health Literacy, which would be of interest to journalists, health bloggers, and other thinkers contending with the challenges of health delivery in a multi-lingual world.  ReportingonHealth's Angilee Shah will be live blogging the conference. We invite participants,  speakers, and others interested in these topics to join in the conversation as well by creating a profile and blogging from ReportingonHealth. It's easy. I promise. You can also tweet or follow tweets on the conference using the hashtag #HealthLitLA.

The conference features 18 leading researchers, community leaders and clinicians, including Alice Chen, M.D., who has spoken and written eloquently about the challenges at UC San Francisco for our program; Tess Boley Cruz, PhD, a USC Medical researcher who looks at Big Tobacco marketing; and Miya Iwataki, who has helped create many of the health care interpreting programs in Los Angeles County's Health Services Department as director of its Office of Diversity Programs. I'll be there too, to talk about how our Health Journalism Fellowships program helps with another kind of health literacy: educating journalists on how to decipher and accurately present medical studies (and get beyond a lot of hype). I'll also highlighting some of the excellent work done by Health Journalism Fellows on topics related to health literacy and culture, such as the excellent project by Sara Kramer for WNYC in New York on medical interpreting challenges in New York City and the series by the Salt Lake City Tribune's Lisa Rosetta on unique approaches to addressing cancer in the Navajo Community.

The conference is the brainchild of Ellen Iverson, whose USC center is dedicated to improving collaboration between researchers, community non-profits and clinicians.  

I hope to see you there – either virtually or in person. In the meantime, check out our tips for reporting on medical translation.