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How Can Health Literacy Advance Health Equity?

What is Health Literacy? 

Health literacy is the degree to which a person has the ability to locate, understand, and use information and services to effectively inform health-related decisions for themselves and others. 

Additionally, it refers to the mental and social skills that influence the ability of an individual to get access to and utilize their personal health information in a manner that can preserve their health and overall well-being.

Health Literacy Examples

Examples of health literacy include understanding prescription drug instructions, understanding doctor's directions, and consent forms, and having the ability to navigate the complex healthcare system.

When someone has a proficient level of health literacy, for example, they understand the relationship between smoking and cancer risk. This knowledge empowers them to make healthier lifestyle choices. 

When someone has limited or no access to health-based information, or low health literacy, they are more likely to make poor health or lifestyle choices. For example, they may not be able to recognize the basic symptoms of chronic disease, and in turn, they can’t or won’t know how to access care when needed.

Everyone can benefit from health literacy skills in order to successfully: 

  • Find and access care
  • Prevent certain health conditions
  • Effectively manage health conditions that arise
  • Understand care choices
  • Make informed decisions 
  • Communicate their needs in every situation

Why is Health Literacy Important?  

Since health literacy plays a vital part in influencing a person’s decisions when it comes to their health and well-being, it allows an individual to take control of their own well-being by making informed healthcare choices. 

If we can drive increased health literacy, we will see a marked improvement in how people receive care.  They will be able to access more services, they will have improved communication between an individual and their doctors, and they will be able to better advocate for themselves in a care setting. 

How Health Literacy Impacts People's Health 

Studies have shown that health literacy can increase the use of preventive healthcare, lower unnecessary emergency room visits, lower preventable stays in the hospital, and decrease readmissions. 

This is attributed to the fact that greater health literacy empowers people with knowledge and confidence so they can better understand their specific health status and how to proactively manage potential symptoms. 

Health literacy is essential to make knowledgeable choices regarding individual and family care decisions. It empowers a person to take an active role in their health and care while engaging with medical and service providers cohesively and effectively.  

What’s the Impact of Low Health Literacy? 

For many people, the concept of low health literacy is under-recognized and often minimized. In many situations, patients are too ashamed to tell their providers that they cannot adequately process or understand the information given to them. 

That is why low health literacy has been associated with an individual not conforming to treatment plans and a prescribed course of medical treatment. It is why people often take a referral for needed services but cannot follow through on connecting with the program.

Low health literacy has been associated with poor patient self-care, higher healthcare costs, increased risk of hospitalization, and even increased mortality rates.

Health Literacy and Health Equity

When you can increase health literacy, you can build a genuine bridge to health equity. When you consider that as many as 80 million Americans have limited health literacy, it’s not surprising that health disparities are routinely experienced by individuals due to barriers to achieving positive care outcomes for themselves and their families. 

What Role can Managed Care Organizations Play to Improve Health Literacy?

Because of the impact of health literacy on addressing social determinants of health and improving health equity, and the associated benefits and requirements that it addresses for Managed Care Organizations (MCO), it’s imperative that plans assess their patient populations to best identify how limited health literacy impedes access to services or adherence to treatments, and then develop appropriate health literacy interventions to improve health equity. Some ways that MCOs can benefit from investing in improving health literacy amongst their members include:

  • Investment in coaching and navigation programs to help members learn and advocate for them.
  • Using plain language in both verbal and written communications with clear, more inclusive messaging and information will build trust; this includes incorporating visual aids, such as simple illustrations, images, informational graphics, and videos, which help patients better understand health information. 
  • Provide information that focuses on the people’s specific cultural, linguistic, and environmental needs.
  • Focus on messages that don’t blame them for their adverse circumstances but empathize with their situation and speak to their perspective directly, as those have higher acceptance rates.
  • Better Understand your member's needs by facilitating a needs assessment. From there, you can better comprehend patterns in healthy or unhealthy behaviors, feelings regarding personal health, and patterns in illness or disease. 
  • Advocate for changes by their healthcare system partners that improve health information access and communication methods and teach informed decision-making.

Close Gaps in Care & Improve Outcomes for Your Community with Activate Care

All of these suggested actions can have a tremendous impact on how an MCO can move the needle when it comes to health literacy and, in turn, achieving health equity and also can ensure compliance with the new 2023 NCQA guidelines. They all will take a continued or increased investment in terms of financial and people resources. Partnering with a provider like Activate Care and our proactive whole-population approach to social care can help with turnkey solutions to understanding, engaging, screening, and providing appropriate interventions to coach and guide your members to the right solutions for their needs.

Learn more about how our solutions empower healthcare and social service leaders to wrap their populations in complete community-based care, closing gaps caused by the social determinants of health.

Check out our Path Assist offerings and/or Connect with Our Team to learn more.