Patricia Chaney

Improving Health Literacy to Boost Employee Wellness

When most of us buy a new smartphone or laptop, we don’t sit down and read the manual. We figure it out as we go. But that’s not how our bodies work, and when you can’t understand medical and health information, the consequences can be dire.

Health literacy is the ability to understand and act on relevant health information. Many factors that go into it — reading, math and decision-making skills among them — and right now, it’s something Americans sorely lack. According to a 2016 survey, only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy. Improving health literacy is an important step toward empowering patients and containing health care costs — and employers can play an active role in ensuring employees are informed about their health.

Effects of Low Health Literacy

Today’s patient-centered care aims to bring patients into the decision-making process and have them act as partners in their care. But they are better partners when they understand the information given to them.

The National Institutes of Health details the numerous outcomes of low health literacy, from poorer health status to increased use of expensive services. More specifically, those with inadequate health literacy:

  • Make less frequent use of preventive services
  • Have a higher chance of taking medications incorrectly
  • Exhibit poorer control of chronic conditions
  • Experience more emergency room visits and hospitalizations

Employees with low health literacy have more difficulty filling out paperwork and understanding their benefits. All of these factors contribute to more time off work, reduced productivity and increased medical costs.

Reasons for Low Health Literacy

The same 2016 survey mentioned above found that the three factors that most influence a person’s health literacy are education level, age and cultural differences, including language barriers, which lead to trouble understanding health information. And as people age, they face cognitive decline, making it harder for them to understand health information at a time when they may also be more likely to take multiple medications.

Health literacy isn’t just about someone’s ability to read. It’s also about their ability to comprehend numbers and apply math to daily life situations, for example in reading nutrition labels or interpreting test results and readings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 64 percent of adults have numeracy skills at a level two or below on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies scale. Only 9 percent have skills at the highest levels, four and five.

What Employers Can Do

The more employees use unnecessary medical services or fail to manage chronic conditions, the more costs go up for everyone involved. As an employer, it may not be reasonable to perform a health literacy assessment of all your employees, but you can take general steps to help.

  • Provide detailed explanations of benefits in multiple formats. Provide resources that explain in detail what copays, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits are, and explain how people can get billed for unexpected costs. People absorb information different ways, so try offering printed resources, emails and videos.
  • Share easy-to-understand information. Medical information can be complicated and packed with jargon, so make an effort to share information from reputable sources that uses plain language. These resources from Medline are a great place to start.
  • Include translations. Many websites offer information in both Spanish and English. Share Spanish resources if applicable to your employees.
  • Use picture-based information when possible. This will help employees who may have lower literacy skills or just a preference for visual learning. Share infographics as weekly health tips or in employee newsletters. The World Health Organization has a library of infographics to choose from, and Medium has compiled a list of image-heavy health tips.
  • Host seminars or “lunch and learns.” Invite local doctors or public health employees to speak about specific health topics at work. Consider having an HR representative give a presentation about benefits and explain common health plan terminology. Allow plenty of time for questions at these events.
  • Give them tools. As much information as you try to give your employees, they’re going to do their own research online, too. Arm them with a trusty health care glossary for quick reference whenever they run into a term they aren’t sure about.
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The more quality information employees get, the more prepared they will be to manage their own health. You can start improving health literacy in your office by doing something as simple as emailing a daily or weekly health tip to employees. And as you get a better understanding of what your employees do and don’t know about their health and benefits, tailor information specifically to those needs.

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