As employees try to become better
consumers when it comes to their
health care, it is important that they understand what they have signed up for
and what they get for their money.
It’s also important that they know what to
expect when they make an appointment to
see their doctor or when they go to get a
“Health literacy is a crucial part of receiving quality health care,” says Bob Dawson,
president and CEO of HealthAmerica, a
growing statewide health insurer in the
Philadelphia area. “Research shows that
it’s vital to good patient care and for positive health outcomes.”
Smart Business talked to Dawson about
how employers can make sure their
employees are health literate.
What is health literacy?
Health literacy is really the ability to read,
understand and act on health information.
Health care, as we all know, is complicated, and health care providers require a special language to do their jobs. Even well-educated, professionally skilled people
have trouble from time to time understanding their doctor or their recommended treatment.
Why should we be concerned about that?
Only 50 percent of all patients take medications as directed, leading to compliance
issues and possible negative health outcomes. We all know the problem when we
don’t take our antibiotics as we’re supposed to. We feel good after three days, we
quit taking them and this increases our
resistance to antibiotics. Adults with low
health literacy average 6 percent more hospital visits and remain in the hospital two
days longer than adults with higher health
The annual costs for those with low literacy skills are four times higher than those
with high literacy skills. Health literacy
comprises the skills and strategies that
often lead to longer life and improved quality of our lives by reducing chronic diseases and costs savings.
And we know from research that people
who don’t fully understand what the doctor
is telling them are less likely to receive
potentially life-saving screening tests such
as mammograms or Pap smears, or get flu
shots or other vaccinations.
We’re moving toward health benefit plans
with initiatives that support individuals to
better manage their own health and reward
healthy behaviors and to share some of the
financial responsibilities. Behind this consumer model is the assumption that individuals will know what they need to do to
make informed decisions and lead healthier lives.
What can employers do to make their
employees more literate?
First, we need to admit that we may have
a problem understanding our health care.
This can affect all individuals, including
professionals and others who are simply
intimidated to ask additional questions of
their physicians so that they can be sure
they know what is going on and how they
can have a more active role in their health
It is a problem that needs to be addressed at several levels, and because it influences
health care costs, certainly employers have
a stake in making sure their employees are
There are a couple of sources that can
help. One is an association called
Partnership for Clear Health Communication (www.AskMe3.org) that provides
employers with a number of cost-effective
ways to educate their employees about
health literacy and the importance of clear
health communication between health
providers and patients. The partnership’s
Web site says patients should ask three
basic questions: What is my main problem,
what do I need to do and why is it important to me? Patients should walk out of any
appointment with a health care provider
and know the answers to those three questions.
Other helpful sources include the Agency
for Healthcare Research and Quality at
www.ahrq.gov/path/beactive.htm and the
Institute of Medicine at
The important thing is to ask questions and
share all of your information with your
Is health literacy more important now that
employees are becoming more frequent
health care consumers?
It’s always been an issue and I don’t know
that it’s any more pronounced today. The
real key is understanding and good communication between patients and their
physicians and other health care providers.
It’s important that people know what’s
being asked of them including course of
treatment, any possible follow-ups and
what kind of results to expect. It is important to have a spouse or other family member present to help navigate the questions
and make sure the patient has a clear
understanding of what should be expected.
Statistics cited were compiled by the
Partnership for Clear Health Care
BOB DAWSON is president and CEO of HealthAmerica based in
Harrisburg. Reach him at (717) 540-6353.