The Importance of Health Literacy

You might think health literacy doesn’t matter—after all, isn’t it your doctor’s job to make healthcare decisions for you? But the truth is that healthcare decisions need to be collaborative. And if there are barriers to communication, that collaborative ability breaks down.  Health literacy skills allow patients to take control of their own well-being by making smart healthcare choices, improving their communication with doctors and giving them the information they need to advocate for themselves in a medical setting. Without health literacy, patients can suffer real consequences.  “The reality is that everyone needs health literacy skills to successfully find and access care, prevent certain health conditions, effectively manage those that occur, communicate their needs, understand their choices and make informed decisions,” Jepson says.

Experts agree that health literacy is vital to reducing healthcare costs and improving public health. The path to improving health literacy isn’t always straightforward, however.  “Unfortunately, up to 9 out of 10 adults can have limited health literacy, and this can be fluid,” Blue says. “It can be more challenging to be health literate when we are sick or in pain, so even someone who normally has a high level of health literacy may struggle at times to understand and process health information.” 

Many healthcare facilities have adopted programs or systems designed to improve their patients’ health literacy. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy encourages alternate forms of communication, such as using simplified language and videos to share information with patients. It also outlines a “universal precautions approach,” which encourages healthcare professionals to assume all patients have a limited understanding of the procedures and information being relayed to them—this levels the field and helps ensure all patients are receiving easy-to-understand information.

Jepson agrees that plain, simple communication is the key to unlocking health literacy for everyone. “When people receive accurate, easy-to-understand information, they are better equipped to take care of their health and wellness,” she says.

Health Literacy Workshop Program

Health Literacy/Coverage to Care Workshop was developed and implemented as part of the ACA Healthcare Navigation education initiative in 2014. Piloted in Belle Glade, a rural area of Palm Beach County consisting of underserved and historically underprivileged communities, EFL partnered with local service providers who hosted our workshops. The workshops success garnered national recognition from CMS as a best practice. As a result, we were asked to present our workshop on a national CMS Assister webinar, serve as panelists on Coverage to Care at the 2017 CMS Assister Summit, and mentor other navigator organizations through the CMS Pilot Mentorship Program. In 2018 Florida Blue Foundation spotlighted the workshops by honoring EFL with the Blue Sapphire Award during their yearly Community Health and Sapphire Awards Symposium. 

Our Health Literacy workshop for consumers brought to light the need for medical staff to obtain health literacy as it relates to their patients. We created Health Literacy for Residents, a separate workshop that educates medical school students, residents, and medical staff with communication methods and tricks on identifying low health literacy in patients. In 2021, we witnessed an abundance of misinformation, miseducation, and myths surrounding COVID-19, and we are currently incorporating COVID-19 best practices within both of our workshops.

 

All workshops are preceded and followed by a knowledge assessment. The workshop participants are provided with an interactive Word Match activity to assess participant understanding of health literacy and health insurance terminology covered in the workshop.

A lack of health literacy can have consequences on both a patient’s personal health and the nation as a whole. On an individual level, “a person may not understand essential things such as how and when to take a prescribed medication, how to know when it is appropriate to go to the emergency room rather than a primary care doctor or how to explain signs and symptoms they are experiencing,” Blue says.

From a public health perspective, reduced health literacy can lead to widespread consequences. “Low health literacy is also costly for the country because when people don’t understand health information and instructions, they are more likely to have worse health outcomes and unnecessarily use emergency room services,” Blue says.

Prioritize Your Health Literacy

Those programs are helpful for improving health literacy on a national scale, but there are also steps you can take to make health literacy a priority in your everyday life. Blue offers several strategies patients can use, such as writing down any questions or concerns they have for providers ahead of their appointment and recording the appointment or taking notes so they can easily refer back to their doctor’s instructions.

She also emphasizes that patients don’t have to be on their own if they feel intimidated about a doctor’s appointment. “It is also appropriate to bring a trusted person to the appointment to listen in,” Blue says. This could be a family member or friend, a home health nurse or a patient care coordinator.

Ultimately, you want to leave every medical encounter feeling informed and confident about any diagnosis, medications or other instructions your doctor gave you. “Another good strategy is to repeat all information back to your healthcare provider, in your own words, to make sure that you understand,” Blue says. This gives them the opportunity to correct any miscommunications on the spot so you can feel prepared to take charge of your health after the appointment and beyond.

The workshop provides consumers with the knowledge they need to feel empowered and make informed decisions about their health. Our consumers are encouraged to bring their insurance cards, Summary of Benefits statements, and any additional correspondence from providers for discussion during the workshop. The success of our program is based on the following important factors:

 

– Our health literacy materials are created with descriptive diagrams and real-life experiences.

– Workshops are delivered in English, Spanish, and Haitian-Creole.*

– Workshops are hosted by trusted community partners who already deliver services to these consumers.

– Workshops are interactive and delivered at a literacy level appropriate to the population being addressed.