Health should be a skill – a poetic tribute to health literacy

Blueflower Arts / Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali, American slam poet and educator

Making decisions about our health is complicated. Most of us have struggled with health literacy at some point in our lives. At the last WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2021, Taylor Mali, slam poet and educator from the United States of America, shared part of his poem, “An apple a day is not enough”, with delegates and the audience following the session, emphasizing that health is a skill that must be taught.

WHO recognizes health literacy – the ability to access, understand, assess and use information to make healthy choices – as an important determinant of health. Health literacy empowers people, which significantly contributes to people-centered health care – an important step towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“Health should be a skill,” said Taylor Mali. “I think we’re finding out that if people in society made small changes to the way we teach health and consider the importance of children’s health and nutrition, we could see huge results.”

Teach – create new understanding

Taylor Mali is one of the best-known poets to emerge from the slam poetry movement. Before becoming a full-time poet, he spent 9 years in the classroom teaching everything from English to history to math. He has performed and lectured for teachers in over 50 countries.

“I still see myself as a teacher,” he said. “I just have a different kind of class. Teachers and poets are both kinds of midwives. It is their job to give birth to new understandings and epiphanies. In this sense, there is little difference between being a poet and being a teacher.

“The type of poetry I write is a dance between brutal truth and beautiful, transcendent writing and imagery. You always want to balance your poem between what we call clouds and anchors; it will be more effective than if your poem is nothing more than a deep philosophical truth. This way people don’t feel too bombarded and are ready to listen.

“An Apple a Day is Not Enough,” Taylor Mali’s poem on the need to integrate health education and health literacy into every subject in the school curriculum, was written and published in 2010. It emphasizes the need to improve health literacy and teach healthy habits to children by setting them a healthy example – at home and at school.

Health Literacy – A Catalyst for Healthy Choices

“The choices you make each day have the greatest impact in the greatest possible way” is one line of the poem that still rings true despite being written almost 12 years ago. It reflects the importance of individual choices that affect our health and well-being and which are often not medical, but rather social, cultural, political, psychological or economic.

Harnessing this behavioral and cultural knowledge (BCI) helps us better understand the drivers and barriers to achieving the highest possible standard of health. This is a specific objective for improving the health of people in the WHO European Region, described in the European work program “United Action for Better Health”.

Transnational investigation

Health literacy is an important part of this work. Since 2019, the WHO Action Network on Measuring Health Literacy in Population and Organizations (M-POHL) has been conducting a cross-country survey in 17 countries to create comparative data on levels of health literacy in order to lay a solid foundation for future actions.

The survey results, along with recommendations for countries, were presented at the BCI Health Literacy Side Event at the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2021. The report of the survey findings, along with policy recommendations, practice and research, were presented to a wider audience on November 8, 2021.

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