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Poor health literacy affects more than 50% in U.S.

Posted by Kenzie Shofner on October 10, 2016

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Poor health literacy affects more than 50% in U.S.

By United Language Group

Do your patients understand their benefits? More than half of the people living in the United States are affected by low health literacy. October is Health Literacy Month.

In fact, “as few as 12% of Americans are capable of really understanding the healthcare system, their health, and how their coverage applies”, said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at DirectPath, a strategic employee engagement and healthcare compliance company. Not Surprisingly, lower healthcare literacy has been linked to higher utilization, higher rates of hospitalization, and less use of preventive services.

According to HRSA, low health literacy is more prevalent among minority populations. These minority patients are more likely to have difficulties communicating with their healthcare providers than their white counterparts. In fact, up to 20% of Spanish-speaking Latinos do not seek medical advice due to language barriers. Asians and Hispanics also report difficulties understanding written information from doctor's offices and instructions on prescription bottles.

If that’s not alarming enough, according to a federal guide, lack of communication about care transitions and limited health literacy are among the primary reasons minority patients are readmitted to the hospital.

According to Buckey, insurers are missing the opportunity to educate consumers about the need for preventive care and options that can control costs not only for them, but also the health plan. Examples include going to an urgent care clinic or using telemedicine instead of going to an emergency room. Also, many people assume that all pharmacies charge the same amount and do not know that they can shop around for the best price on prescriptions.

While the Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) required by The Affordable Care Act was supposed to address this lack of education, Buckey suggests that health plans should market to and educate consumers year-round rather than focusing almost exclusively on the open enrollment period.

Healthcare professionals can help their limited health literacy patients by:

  • Identifying patients with limited literacy levels.
  • Using simple language, short sentences and defining technical terms.
  • Supplementing written instructions with videos, models, pictures, etc.
  • Organizing information so that the most important points stand out and repeating this information.
  • Reflecting the age, cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of patients in all materials.
  • Providing information in the primary language for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) patients.
  • Utilizing lots of universal symbols.

Learn more about how to address this challenge efficiently and cost effectively in our whitepaper: The Growing Challenges of Health Literacy.


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United Language Group

Andrew is a staff writer at United Language Group. He is especially interested in digital marketing, translation technology, as well as cultural and linguistic studies.

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Topics: Blog