Low health literacy Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
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 prescription filled.

“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 literacy.

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 care issues.

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 health literate.

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 www.nap.edu/books/0309091179/html. The important thing is to ask questions and share all of your information with your physician.

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 Communication.

BOB DAWSON is president and CEO of HealthAmerica based in Harrisburg. Reach him at (717) 540-6353.