What is Health Literacy?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define health literacy as the degree to which an individual can obtain, process, communicate and understand health information and services. People with low health literacy are more likely to be uninsured. Similarly, uninsured individuals show lower health literacy scores compared to those receiving employer-based coverage.
So Why Does Low Health Literacy Matter?
It is not altogether surprising that the uninsured and those with low health literacy are less likely to seek preventative care; more likely to experience poor health outcomes; and more likely to encounter higher medical costs. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 1 in 3 uninsured adults said they had a preventive visit with their physician in the previous year, and uninsured adults experienced higher mortality rates than the insured. An Institute of Medicine report found a similar pattern of healthcare use for those with low health literacy, stating this group was less likely to seek preventive care. Research also found that lower health literacy in Medicaid managed care settings is connected with higher mortality. This shows that the uninsured and people lacking health literacy interact with the healthcare system in similar ways: poorly. Using the healthcare system is something people must learn. Giving someone a computer does not mean they know how to type. In the same way, connecting a person with healthcare will not alter their level of health literacy.
Old Habits Die Hard. The newly insured will continue receiving care in ways most familiar to them, which can translate to using the emergency room for non-emergencies. According to the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, individuals who received Medicaid coverage increased their emergency room use by 40%. Asked to comment on the results, the state director of policy and programs for the National Association of Medicaid Directors alluded to the importance of promoting health literacy in the newly insured. She said, “this is not something that is unexpected” and “the key to getting inappropriate costs down for all patients is educating people about where they should go when it’s not an emergency.”
How to Address Health Literacy
State initiatives, including an Illinois Emergency Room Diversion Grant are acknowledging the importance of patient education and using outreach to reduce ER use. In Illinois, hospital staff led outreach explaining the proper use of the ER and offered a 24-hour nurse triage line as an alternative. Meanwhile, Maine is targeting ER super-utilizers through community care teams that offer intensive case management including home visits and health coaching. Recognizing state efforts like that of Illinois and Maine, CMS listed patient education as a recommended component of programs targeting ER super-utilizers.
Health Professional Efforts
Beyond education on how to use their health insurance, health professionals can improve the usability of health services by reducing medical speak in patient interactions. Healthcare systems can also create plain-language pamphlets for patients to reference after leaving the doctor’s office. By speaking with patients in a relatable manner and sharing usable information, doctors better position healthcare consumers to adhere to medical recommendations.
Northwestern University’s Division of General Medicine and Geriatrics focuses on improving engagement between providers and patients and has developed plain-language materials that communicate complex health topics. For example, researchers created written information and videos available in Spanish and English that teach patients diabetes self-management. The modules use simple language and rely on pictures to communicate aspects of diabetes care, such as how the disease can impact a person’s eyes. By using these materials when interacting with diabetes patients, health professionals communicate vital aspects of care in an accessible manner, increasing the likelihood that patients adopt the healthy behaviors.
Community Health Literacy Efforts
The Be Covered Illinois campaign is promoting health literacy by generating easy-to-read written and online materials, creating short videos explaining critical concepts and utilizing community partnerships to expand the reach of their communications. By producing written fact sheets on finding the right doctor and developing web content on using your coverage Be Covered empowers the newly insured with the knowledge to navigate health insurance and health care systems more effectively. Be Covered’s Dr. Lopez video series, presented in both English and Spanish, addresses health insurance topics, chronic disease, prevention and more. Be Covered broadens the reach of their education efforts by partnering with 82 organizations in Illinois, including Illinois Health Matters, that share information and materials with their own constituencies. As part of that effort, Be Covered provides regular content for social media and shares copies of consumer friendly resources free of charge to partners.
Illinois Health Matters recognizes the importance of not only getting insurance but using insurance. The website features resources such as a Medical Cost Look Up, that allows consumers to estimate out-of-pocket costs for medical services and a resource on Immunizations and the ACA, outlining the vaccines children and adults can access for free because of healthcare reform. The website also has a tip sheet titled What to Know About Provider Networks, explaining steps consumers can take to avoid high medical costs associated with out-of-network care. These are just a few examples.
Illinois Health Matters is taking on the challenge of supporting a more health literate population, but we can’t do it alone. Join us. One great way to start: subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed and share the knowledge with your clients and coworkers. The healthcare community can achieve the vision of the Affordable Care Act, but only through the joint efforts of providers, policymakers and organizations supporting health literacy.
Bryce Marable MSW
Health Policy Analyst