What is a Health Literacy?

Health literacy doesn’t just refer to someone’s ability to read. It is the ability to read and comprehend health and healthcare related terminology, numbers, documents, test results, and other informational readings. Health literacy also refers to the ability to act and make decisions based on relevant health information, such as nutrition labels. As cited in this 2016 study, Americans are lacking in this area. Only 12% of American adults are considered to have proficient health literacy. In in addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 9% of American adults have the highest levels of numeracy skills, which is an important part of health literacy.

The Effects of Low Health Literacy

According to the National Institutes of Health and The Benefits Guide, having low health literacy leads to a variety of negative outcomes, including:

  • Improper or less frequent use of preventive services
  • Inability to correctly fill out paperwork
  • Increased chance of taking medications incorrectly
  • Poor control of chronic conditions
  • Above average emergency room visits and hospitalizations
  • Inability to fully understand and take advantage of health benefits

Having low health literacy not only impacts the individual, but it also impacts the employers and the economy as a whole. Low health literacy contributes to more sick days, reduced productivity and increased medical costs. As stated in the report Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy, low health literacy costs the U.S. economy between $106 billion to $238 billion annually.

How To Improve Employee Health Literacy

As an employer, working to improve health communication in the workplace can reduce health care costs and increase quality of health care for employees. Listed below are ways employers can help employees improve their health literacy.

  • Provide Quality and Detailed Explanations of Benefits. By providing resources that fully explain in detail what copays, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits are, employees will better understand how they could get billed for unexpected costs. Remember that all employees learn in different ways, so offer explanations in different ways, like printed documents, infographics, videos, PowerPoints, ect.
  • Break Down the Medical Jargon. Medical information can be complicated and packed with confusing jargon, so make an effort to share easy to understand information from reputable sources. The Benefits Guide recommends using resources from Medline.
  • Offer Multiple Translations. If you have employees who speak different languages, be sure to offer translations of medical information so you can make sure they are fully understanding everything. Many websites already offer information in both Spanish and English, and many other languages can be found or translated to as well.
  • Use Picture-Based Information. This will help employees who may have lower literacy skills or just a preference for visual learning. The Benefits Guide cites the World Health Organization and Medium for having great infographics and image-heavy health tips to choose from.
  • Schedule Seminars or “Lunch and Learns.” Consider having an HR representative give a presentation about benefits and explain common health terminology at these events and even invite local doctors or public health employees to speak about specific health topics. Also remember to encourage questions and allow plenty of time the Q&A.
  • Give Quality Tools. For those that like to do their own research, make sure you provide quality tools for them to use, such as a health care glossary, pamphlets, brochures, and other educational materials.

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