Literacy Network offers classes to help area immigrants better understand healthcare

Trainings and workshops focus on navigating the health and insurance systems

By Jennifer Garrett

Marcus Greatens enters the classroom carrying a white bucket. The third-year UW medical student proceeds to remove two hearts, one lung, two brains and various other human organs seeped in alcohol solution, and he arranges everything on two beige cafeteria trays. There is a box of latex gloves on the table next to him, enough for everyone in the class.

Over the next two hours, Greatens passes the organs to his students, none of whom have ever seen or handled anything like this. Some eagerly reach out when he asks for a volunteer. Others hang back, listening but not touching. It's a diverse group, with individuals from Laos, Spain, Japan and Mexico. But they're all here for the same reason: to improve their literacy skills, as part of a health literacy program offered by the Literacy Network of Dane County.

Instructor Marie Green Ganser explains that the intimate presentations help to demystify the human body as well as to humanize health care providers. "The more they interact with the med students, the more comfortable they're going to be in their own doctor's office," she says.

And that is one of the primary goals of the health literacy program: to give the students the communication skills they need to obtain appropriate care and to effectively navigate the health and insurance systems, which can be confusing for people from other countries with vastly different approaches to medicine.

The twelve-week programs are free and open to anyone. They meet twice a week for two hours in space provided by different health system partners. A health care provider is always present,and classes involve speakers, mock clinics and other interactive lessons.

"I think it's really important for adult English language learners to learn things in a hands-on way," Ganser says, noting that many of the students arrive to class at the Group Health clinic in Fitchburg via long bus rides after full days of work. "They're not going to forget that [class]."

DaeHee Kim, a fourth-year med student, tries to attend every session. Himself an immigrant from Korea, he understands the challenges newcomers face even if they are highly educated. "[The] American health care system is one of the most complicated systems in the world," Kim says. "Patient care is dictated by so many different interest groups … and [it] can be overwhelming to immigrants."

Expensive medical bills and insurance billing, as well as the differences between over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs, all are often new and very confusing. Mistakes are easy to make for uninsured or underinsured individuals without a primary care provider, without an understanding of where to go for a fever, without any familiarity with preventive care.

"It's so difficult to know where you can go for care, and if you make a mistake, you're responsible for it," says Beth Gaytan, director of the health literacy program. "The bills don't just go away."

The courses also address general wellness topics, including nutrition, stress, seat belt use and smoking cessation. They also touch on chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, as well as dental health and hygiene. There's a lot of ground to cover, and Gaytan knows they can't bridge all the gaps in one twelve-week session. Yet she is encouraged by the feedback she receives and by the progress she observes.

"There are really positive outcomes. I wish they were more frequent and on a bigger scale, but for the people we serve, we are a powerful influence in their lives," Gaytan says. "It's empowering. They're learning to take care of themselves."

The Literacy Network of Dane County welcomes volunteers from all backgrounds. For more information, visit

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. She blogs about healthy living in Health Kick

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