health illiteracy

The costs of health illiteracy

By Janna Silverstein, Marketing | September 24, 2015

Linda just got her first job after college. She’s happy to learn that her benefits include health insurance. But when she looks at her benefit booklet and her new-employee materials, she sees phrases like “fully funded,” “health care administrator,” and “risk-sharing,” plus words like “deductible” and “coinsurance.”  She’s not sure what a network is or how her employment affects her coverage. It all looks confusing and overwhelming.

Health insurance has a vocabulary that is precise within the industry, but obscure and intimidating to consumers. These words are unfamiliar and their meanings are unclear. And that’s a challenge, not just for those consumers—your employees—but for you as an employer. Your investment in covering employees is a major commitment, but if your employees don’t understand their benefits, they can’t use them effectively.

What is health literacy?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “health literacy” lately. It refers to a person’s ability to find and understand key information so that they can get the right health care. It means that when you talk to your employees about insurance, it’s important to use words they understand. The average American reads at about a seventh-grade level. Many speak English as a second language. It’s important, therefore, to keep messages simple, clear and relevant—using shorter words and simpler sentences. Sure, it helps us provide better services as employers and insurers, but it can also directly affect your bottom line. How?

How health literacy affects you

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) identifies “the lack of health literacy as a ‘major source of economic inefficiency in the U.S. healthcare system,’ and attributes $106 billion to $238 billion each year to its side effects.”

According to the Group Health Plain Language Network, low health literacy means that people don’t follow provider instructions, don’t understand their explanations of benefits and are less likely to get basic preventive care. And the results are wide-ranging:

  • Increases in diabetes, asthma, and obesity, among other diseases

  • Delayed diagnoses, more ER use, hospitalizations and re-admissions

  • Calls to employer human resources departments, as employees ask for help contacting insurance companies and understanding benefits

  • More care, more calls to Member Services and more claims—care, calls and claims that could otherwise be avoided

What you can do

Plain language initiatives are making big differences at all kinds of companies, regardless of their industries. The Veterans Benefits Administration raised response rates from 35 to 55 percent with a cost savings of $8 million per year by using plain language. Washington State earned $5 million in extra revenue with 95 percent fewer hotline calls.

As you navigate open enrollment, as you bring new employees into your organization, take a moment to look at the literature you write and distribute. There are great resources online that can help you write in plain language. The National Institutes of Health offers a good guide that can help you get started. The Center for Health Literacy offers a downloadable PDF quick checklist for plain language that’s a handy tool if you don’t have the time for training. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and it could help you save money as well.


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