In a public report for the National Institutes of Health, former U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin summarized why health literacy is so important.
“As clinicians, what we say does not matter unless our patients are able to understand the information we give them well enough to use it to make good healthcare decisions,” she wrote. “Otherwise, we didn’t reach them, and that is the same as if we didn’t treat them.”
Health literacy refers to a person’s ability to use healthcare information to make good health and wellness choices. Research consistently shows the greater the health literacy, the healthier the individual.
Strong health literacy matters a lot for businesses, says Kelly Brennan, director of health promotion and wellness at Capital BlueCross.
“Health literacy plays a crucial role in our being able to live the best quality of life we can, which makes it absolutely critical for employers who rely on a healthy and productive workforce,” Brennan said. “When employees are absent from work, it impacts production. Even when employees are at work, but not feeling well, they won’t be at their best, and work may suffer.”
Brennan said health-literacy levels help people make proper daily choices (“Do I eat this or that?”); teach those with diagnosed conditions how to ask the questions to better guide them through sometimes-complex healthcare systems; steer people to their most necessary preventive screenings; make it more likely people will properly use prescribed medication; and are particularly vital for those facing cultural or language barriers to care.
Study after study supports those points.
The National Institutes of Health republished a 2016 Australian study finding that those with lower health-literacy rates were twice as likely to smoke, 31% more likely to be overweight, and more likely to have poorer physical and mental health.
According to the “Healthy People 2020 report” from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, those with lower health literacy: make poorer health decisions, lessening their adherence to treatment regimens; use emergency departments more; and evidence suggests more of their children have depression or persistent asthma.
The good news is there’s a lot employers can do to increase employee health literacy. Brennan listed worksite wellness programs, onsite clinics, and employee assistance programs as examples.
To help its employees and covered employer groups become more health literate, Capital BlueCross:
- Provides easy-to-understand member health education materials, in multiple languages when needed.
- Helps members with complex medical problems understand what to ask their providers, and how to care for themselves.
- Has a team of social workers to help members find resources such as transportation or meal delivery.
- Provides resources such as Health Insurance 101 to help individuals understand health insurance terms.
- Developed “My Cap BlueCross,” a voice-enabled skill-instruction tool for Amazon Alexa, which members can use to ask about services, understand documents, and define healthcare terminology.
Brennan emphasized employers need to make these services user-friendly.
“If they aren’t utilized because employees don’t understand how to use or navigate these services,” she said, “they fall short of the goal.”