Reaching out: Texas A&M nursing students teach Central Texas families the value of health education

Texas A&M nursing students combat health illiteracy in effort to reduce health care cost burdens in Central Texas.

It is a common scene – anxious parents and children waiting in emergency rooms, clinics and doctors’ offices. But all too often, stressful and expensive trips like these could have been prevented if the parents were better informed.

Parents are particularly prone to using professional health services at higher rates if health information is difficult to understand. In seeking the best care for their children, these parents may not feel confident monitoring and treating ailing children at home, so they immediately pursue expert help that may not necessarily require emergent treatment.

To address this mounting issue, the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) College of Nursing (CON), in conjunction with the Williamson-Burnet County Opportunities Head Start Centers, recently completed the first portion of the Heath Improvement Project (HIP), a national effort aimed at increasing health literacy and encouraging proper utilization of available health services.

As part of the educational experience at TAMHSC, the project allows nursing students to become the teachers by leading information sessions that are specifically designed to expand a community’s circle of knowledge through parental instruction. Assistant Professor Mary Kathryn Sanders, M.S.N, RN, with the Texas A&M College of Nursing guides students through the process that strives to empower parents through education.

“Being in a position to teach valuable things to others is a gift that keeps on giving,” said Todd Newton, a senior nursing student who taught courses in Spanish to participating parents.  “It’s reciprocated when learners incorporate something and pass it along, and that’s the icing on the cake. It takes learning to another level.”

HIP is based on the book What to Do When Your Child Gets Sick and is part of a program started by the University of California-Los Angeles/Johnson & Johnson Healthcare Institute. Parents are taught how to prevent illnesses and accidents, how to recognize and react properly to potential medical needs, and how to utilize the book to manage children’s health. Participating families receive a copy of the book in either English or Spanish, a first-aid kit, thermometer and a bag of other necessary home health items to help accurately assess the health of their children.

“We want to educate these parents, and create an understanding that the first thing to do is not always going to the emergency room,” said Sanders. “It’s a great way for parents to gain access to education that may otherwise be unattainable and for nursing students to gain experience speaking with community members.”

Since its inception in the fall of 2013, HIP has reached more than 100 families through five different Head Start centers in Central Texas. Additionally, more than 150 Head Start teachers and support staff have been trained by Texas A&M nursing students to further expand health literacy within the participating communities.

Williamson-Burnet County Head Start Director Charlene Burgess explains that the goal of the program is to give participating parents the knowledge to make better choices about their children’s health, resulting in healthier children and better use of health care resources, particularly decreased costs. Reducing health care costs for these families is especially important as 66.2 percent of have incomes below poverty and 7 percent are in the foster care system or are homeless. In addition to reducing emergency room visits, the goal of the program is to reduce the number of missed school and work days.

“There were a lot of hard questions asked by parents and a lot of myth-busting going on in these classes,” Burgess said. “We want to help parents understand their children’s illness and know when to keep them home or see a physician.”

The program is currently collecting data to officially analyze its effectiveness, but preliminary responses from parents already prompted plans for next year’s sessions. In addition to conducting the courses again, organizers hope to expand the program in terms of locations and outreach to encourage an increased number of student participants and parents. Already, HIP expanded the number of parents attending educational classes by 33 percent in the Williamson-Burnet county area.

By  Katie Hancock  Texas A&M