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Health Literacy: Catch the Fever

February 10, 2012
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With a recent HHS decree, it's clear health literacy isn’t going away

Most people think of health literacy in a fairly limited way, but a recent press release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this week that made me think of it in a broader context. The press release was an announcement from HHS indicating that as part of the Affordable Care Act, health insurers were required to present clear, straightforward information in marketing materials on what their health plans will include for potential buyers.  HHS said the rules were meant to eliminate “technical or confusing language.”

It’s possible the announcement caught the eye of Cynthia Baur, the chief author of the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy and the health literacy lead for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Baur and many others in the industry are looking to create a world in which everyone possesses the ability to read and understand health information. The National Action Plan uses stakeholders from both the private and public sector to make progress on health literacy, figuring out strategies for organizations to employ.

I recently wrote about health literacy for an HCI web-only feature and was amazed to find out that studies from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy indicate 77 million American adults have basic or below-literate health literacy skills due to their below eighth-grade reading level. Considering the weight of your health information, this number should undoubtedly be a lot lower.

While this press release didn’t talk about medical information specifically, the insurance aspect of healthcare is an important part of the health literacy movement. Just ask Jo Poorman, senior director of print and digital media for Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), which is an independent licensee of Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Jo Poorman

Poorman’s organization has undergone several techniques, including bringing in software from the Bethesda, Md.-based Health Literacy Innovations to make their insurance plan reading material easier to understand. The software, Health Literacy Advisor, takes complex healthcare documents and turns them into easier reading material for patients by subbing out confusing words for basic ones.

“There are some people who use health insurance quite a bit and are familiar with co-pay and pre-certification and the standard words you see used in the health insurance world,” Poorman told me. “But there are other aspects to health literacy such as understanding how to follow a treatment plan provided by your doctor and how to make sure you take your medicines correctly, and on time. Those different aspects will vary between individuals, so those are the types of things we’re looking at and seeing if we’ve done the best job communicating to our members.”

Elsewhere, health literacy has made its way into various campaigns from both private and public organizations. Recently, another insurer, Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based Health Net, teamed with UCLA to create a health literacy social media campaign aimed at teens. With each passing day, it will be interesting to see if the health literacy movement continues to grow and where those illiterate numbers will stand in a few years.