New Florida FIRST Associate Professor’s journey through Health Literacy research

Emily Stewart

TALLAHASSEE, FL- Florida State University’s Florida FIRST research program has just hired an associate professor, Dr. Carli Culjat, to its growing cohort of dedicated researchers. 

Dr. Carli Culjat started her research career as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing. She maintains an active practice as a Nurse Practitioner in the Emergency Department. She earned her Ph.D. in Nursing and Family Nurse Practitioner degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  

Dr. Culjat’ research interests include health literacy and policy in underserved populations. She has a specialized interest in advancing health literacy through improved communication and application strategies in Hispanic/Latino and rural populations. Her research focuses on improving and effectively disseminating information in a way that consumers can access when they need it and, in a way, they can use it for their health decisions. 

Her research journey began with experiences during her early years as a nurse in the emergency department. Witnessing the undue distress of patients facing chronic illnesses and aggressive treatments, she realized that a crucial element was missing- effective communication.  

“Working in the ER and hospice, I saw first-hand how the system is hard to understand, and we are not doing a good job at helping people navigate the system. To me, that is all communication, and the power of accessible information is in getting it when you need it and, in a way, you can consume it so you can have power over your choices,” said Dr. Culjat.  

Health literacy refers to the capacity to obtain, understand, and use health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. Medical jargon and complex healthcare systems often leave patients feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood; thus, it is important to make changes to benefit the people. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of America is proficient in health literacy.  Low health literacy affects individuals and communities. A limited understanding of health information, barriers to accessing care, limited engagement in preventative care, higher healthcare costs, limited self-advocacy, and mistrust of the healthcare system are among ways in which low health literacy affects individuals and communities.  

Dr. Culjat research encompasses a broad spectrum, with a central focus on increasing health literacy and fostering relationship- centered care. From urban to rural areas, she dives deep into the complexities of how individuals from diverse backgrounds access, understand, and apply health information. Her research often takes her to communities where English might not be the primary language, which highlights her commitment to ensuring that cultural and linguistic differences do not stand in the way of quality healthcare.  

“Health literacy is not just about reading and writing,” Dr. Culjat emphasizes. “It’s about empowerment – the ability to navigate the healthcare system, ask the right questions, and make informed choices.” Through her work, she aims to give patients the tools they need to actively participate in their healthcare journey.  

One aspect that distinguishes Dr. Culjat is her unique approach to healthcare communication. With a natural talent for connecting with people on a personal level, she instills her interactions with a sense of empathy and genuine concern. She treats patients and families like friends and family while engaging in conversations that are free of medical jargon. While tackling this issue, Dr. Culjat hopes to dispel the myth that simplifying information to a lower reading level is the answer. She advocates for personalized communication that considers the nuances of each person’s health literacy, an individual’s culture, and their specific context. 

As a part of her commitment to providing culturally competent health communications, Dr. Culjat has served as a national board member and treasurer of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN). During her time at NAHN, Dr. Culja's research was focused on uplifting the Hispanic community through health literacy and cancer care prevention. Her work is aligned with President Biden's Cancer Moonshot Initiative to reduce cancer deaths in half in the next quarter-century. As a Latina nurse researcher in this field, she can contribute to this goal through her research and subsequent interventions in the community. 

“This is a unique area of focus with a major impact on our Latino community because according to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the leading cause of death among Hispanic people,” said President of NAHN, Adrianna Nava.  

Delving into dissemination and implementation science, Dr. Culjat is keenly aware of the challenges that lie ahead. Navigating the complex healthcare landscape, insurance systems, and state-specific regulations requires a tailored approach. Her research focuses on what information to provide and how to effectively distribute it to diverse audiences.  

In this candid interview, Dr. Culjat discussed the delicate balance between the need for open access to health information and the potential anxiety and confusion it can cause due to a lack of health literacy. Policies like OpenNotes, a federal mandate that grants patients access to their healthcare provider’s notes, offer newfound transparency but also raise questions about responsible implementation. Culjats’ insight sheds light on the intricacies of policy and how it interacts with real-world healthcare scenarios.  

In a society inundated with information, misinformation has become a significant health literacy challenge. Dr. Culjat cites the critical importance of trust in disseminating accurate health information while acknowledging the rise of misinformation and its potential impact on public health. Building and restoring trust within communities is, therefore, a pivotal step in her goal to improve health literacy and equity. Her vision revolves around creating a community-based, trusted entity that serves as a bridge between healthcare needs and healthcare information, a go-to resource accessible to everyone.  

As Dr. Culjat embarks on a new chapter in her career, she’s eager to be a part of the Florida FIRST program and collaborate with experts from various disciplines who share her commitment to enhancing healthcare communication and equity. The interdisciplinary approach of the Florida FIRST Health-Science Brigade is interconnected with the program’s philosophy and resonates deeply with Dr. Culjats’ vision of bridging gaps and creating a more inclusive healthcare landscape. By offering the time, resources, and network she needs, Florida FIRST has become a key motivator in her mission to enhance health literacy and access to accurate health information.  

“This program allows me to focus on my research versus having my time split between service and teaching and research. It is really focused on research and giving me that time to think and collaborate and really develop science, with a very complex topic,” said Dr. Culjat.