The American Medical Association defines health literacy as the ability to read, understand and use health information to make appropriate health care decisions and follow instructions for treatment. Adults with low health literacy do not grasp a lot of the health information that they read. This problem not only puts employees at risk for health problems but also adds up to billions of dollars in health care costs each year.
“Studies show that people with literacy problems have trouble following prescription directions and controlling chronic health conditions,” said Bill Berenson, senior vice president of Aetna's Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. “They are also more likely to be hospitalized for complications and other health issues. Improving health literacy will help employees make better informed health decisions and communicate more effectively with their doctors — key factors that can have a significant impact on health outcomes and costs.”
Smart Business spoke with Berenson about raising health literacy awareness.
Why is health literacy a problem?
Medical journals state that most health materials are written at the 10th-grade reading level. Yet, literacy experts say that a fifth-grade reading level is ideal. This gap causes significant problems for people with low literacy skills.
How many people have difficulty reading and understanding health information?
According to the Institute of Medicine, more than 90 million people have trouble understanding health materials. That means more than half of all adults are more likely to be hospitalized, make mistakes with their medications, have trouble following their doctor’s treatment plan and get less-regular preventive care — all of which put an employee’s health at risk.
Who is most at risk for problems associated with poor health literacy?
At some point, most individuals will encounter health information they cannot understand. Even well-educated people with strong reading and writing skills might have trouble comprehending a medical form or doctor’s instructions. Older people, immigrants and those with low incomes are disproportionately more likely to have trouble reading and understanding health-related information.
How do people cope with low health literacy?
People with low health literacy are often embarrassed or ashamed to admit they have difficulty understanding health information and resources. They use well-practiced coping mechanisms that effectively mask their problem. These might include saying they forgot their eyeglasses to avoid filling out forms or questionnaires, laughing about being forgetful when asked about their medical condition or treatments, or nodding politely when the doctor speaks, without asking any questions.
What are some steps people can take to improve their health literacy skills?
Employers should encourage employees to look for reliable online resources to educate themselves about health topics. When visiting their doctor, people should take time to ask questions when they do not understand test results, instructions or other health information. While some doctors might fear lengthy appointments, research shows that if allowed to speak freely, the average patient would initially speak for less than two minutes.
What is health benefits literacy?
Health benefits literacy is the ability to understand and navigate health insurance options and benefits, and it is essential to helping employees become well-informed health care consumers. Increasing health benefits literacy provides a pivotal opportunity for employers wanting to increase the adoption rate of increasingly popular consumer-directed health plans. Working in partnership, health benefits providers and employers should offer educational materials in easy-to-understand formats, along with credible health information and tools that support informed decision-making.
How can employers help employees improve their health literacy and health literacy benefits skills?
Employers can purchase products to help employees improve their skills, such as tool kits designed to help employers engage, educate and motivate employees. These can include materials like employee letters, fact sheets, quizzes and newsletter articles that employers can share with employees. Employers can also direct employees to online resources that provide more information about their health benefits and financial choices. One site to visit is www.PlanforYourHealth.com, which helps people understand and make the most of their health benefits.
BILL BERENSON is senior vice president of Aetna's Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or firstname.lastname@example.org.