Why not a Health Literacy Approach to the Presidential Debates?

Health literacy, a relatively new field, works to help people understand their health issues and treatment options. One of the ways to help people understand is the Ask Me 3™ approach, which encourages patients and/or their families to answer three important question before they leave a doctor’s office or clinic:

  1. What is my main problem?  
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important?  

Health care professionals too are encouraged to use these three questions to guide the conversations they have with their patients.

Recently, I had the pleasure of dining with some colleagues who promote health literacy in government and academia. As is often the case when colleagues get together, the conversation began with discussions of our work, and then spread more broadly to ‘real’ life: family, food, society, politics, and of course, since it is October and an election year, the presidential debates.

As I drove home from dinner, I began to wonder if the Ask Me 3™ framework could have been used to guide the presidential debates. Would we have better information to guide our selection if the moderator prefaced each topic area with the Ask Me 3™ questions? 

For example, let’s say that the debate topic was the Affordable Care Act. The moderator could have asked each candidate to: 1) identify the main problem with the Affordable Care Act; 2) discuss what s/he would do to solve the problem, and; 3) explain why the solution matters to the American people. In addition to health reform, the same questions could frame the debate discussions about education reform, immigration reform, economic growth, trade policy, national security, and any other topic that percolate in the public consciousness.

Which leads us to another question, or perhaps a plea: Could we have engaged in more thoughtful and meaningful discussion during this election cycle if we’d applied health literacy principles to our political discourse?


Written by Rene Esler, Director, JSI/Atlanta and Project Director, HRSA-funded “In It Together: National Health Literacy Project for Black MSM


One response to “Why not a Health Literacy Approach to the Presidential Debates?”

  1. What a refreshing thought. Health literacy in general and Ask-Me-3 in particular are intended to empower consumers and their partners in healthcare. They’re intended to give voice. I don’t know too many people who feel empowered, or who feel that their voices are being honored this election cycle. I just hope that folks remember that all politics are local and pay careful attention to “down ticket” candidates and referendum votes. One more point of connection: sometimes healthcare access is confounded by practicalities of life like transportation problems. If you have a car, this Election Day consider giving someone a ride to their polling place.

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