When Health Literacy Improves, So Does Health

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.

Health literacy’s role has intensified during the pandemic, said Kelly Brennan, director of health promotion and wellness at Capital BlueCross.

“In 2020, we all had to pay close attention to and understand what to do to lower our risk of getting COVID,” Brennan said. “As a society, we were tasked with understanding transmission routes, disease prevalence, mitigation efforts, etc. Luckily, many sectors joined together to help us all understand what we need to do to stay safe during this time. But even past the pandemic, health literacy plays a crucial role in our being able to live the best quality of life we can.”

Brennan said healthliteracy 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.

To help those covered by its health plans 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.

Study after study supports how improving health literacy makes a difference.

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 people can do to increase their health literacy. Joining your workplace wellness program, attending public health classes or clinics, or taking advantage of various employee health-assistance programs are examples.