Contrary to what the phrase may make you think, health literacy does not actually refer to general literacy—the ability to read and write—in a traditional sense. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies says health literacy is, “The capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” This accounts for our ability to understand prescription bottles, doctors’ instructions, appointment slips, and more. Health literacy is also measured by an individual’s ability to navigate the healthcare system.
Consequently, low health literacy affects people of every educational level, age, socioeconomic level, race, employment status, and income level. A survey from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) puts only 12% of Americans at proficient health literacy levels.
Low health literacy has become a health crisis in the United States, as it can be the cause of increased risk of illness, more emergency room visits, more inpatient admissions, and more hospital readmissions. In fact, low health literacy has cost the US healthcare system $106 billion to $238 billion annually,1 with $17 billion due to preventable readmissions. 2
The US government has enacted several policies and initiatives as a reaction to the billions spent every year as a result of low health literacy. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 includes provisions to address the need for greater attention to health literacy, including
- clear communication of health information
- prevention promotion
- patient-centric focus,
- equity and cultural competencies assurance
- and delivery of high quality care.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in collaboration with over 700 public and private sector entities developed the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy for future research and action. The plan includes seven goals and strategies that researchers and practitioners can use to design studies and interventions.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents from the federal government to be written in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner.
Hospitals are meeting some of these requirements with new technology (mobile devices, cloud storage), new content (patient education video, interactive, automated feedback), and new processes (provider training, defining best practices). This effort to improve health literacy improves patient outcomes, lowers healthcare costs, and provides a new standard of care.
Health literacy is more than just a trendy buzzword in today’s healthcare market. It’s the key to improving healthcare for patients, hospitals, and health systems.
Nucleus Medical Media is a health literacy firm that produces cinematic 3D medical animations and brilliant medical illustrations for use in social media and hospital website marketing, patient education, and more! Contact Nucleus today to learn how patient education materials can enhance your hospital’s health literacy efforts.
- “Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy,” Vernon, et. al., 2007
- New England Journal of Medicine, Jencks, et. al., 2009
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