Targeting health literacy among African Americans with HIV/AIDS

By by Kerry Ludlam | Emory Nursing | April 24, 2012

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"We find that people, especially those with low health literacy, can interpret medication instructions differently." - Drenna Waldrop-Valverde, PhD

Even as a young child growing up in Alabama, Drenna Waldrop-Valverde PhD knew she wanted to help people who were less fortunate than she.

"I was always aware of the injustice and unfairness that was present in our world," she says. "I just knew there must be something we could do, but I wasn't always in a place to do something."

Waldrop-Valverde, a neuro-psychologist with a dual appointment in the School of Nursing and Rollins School of Public Health, is channeling her desire to help underserved populations as the principal investigator of Project READ (Research to Eliminate AIDS Disparities). Funded with a five-year $2.9 million NIH grant, her study aims to determine if African Americans with HIV/AIDS are more likely to misunderstand their medication instructions because of poor health literacy skills, putting them at greater risk for advanced disease. It is part of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to prevent new infections, increase access to care, and reduce health disparities.

For the study, participants are asked to come in for an office visit where they answer personal questions via an auditory computer-assisted survey. Next they are asked to show how they take their medicine. Then they will come back six months later for a follow-up appointment.

"I basically say, 'Show me how you take your medicine,' " says Waldrop-Valverde, who will recruit study participants from Emory University Hospital Midtown and the Ponce de Leon Center, an outpatient clinic operated by Grady Health System. "We find that people, especially those with low health literacy, can interpret medication instructions differently. With HIV medications, patients need to have a higher level of adherence for the medications to be optimally effective. Even with as much as 80 percent adherence, patients can develop a resistance to their medications."

This is the fourth NIH grant awarded to Waldrop-Valverde to study treatment adherence issues among HIV/AIDS patients. Her primary research focuses on health literacy and HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders and their effect on self-management abilities, particularly medication adherence and engagement in care.

"Through all of my studies, I am struck by the similarities between me and the participants," she says. "We all have goals, dreams, and believe in the importance of family. We're all so very similar."