Health Literacy is Critical for Healthier Communities

The U.S. healthcare system is fragmented and complex. From accessing and paying for care to navigating a new diagnosis, even the most knowledgeable patients can end up confused about their options.

Health advocacy aims to bridge these gaps within our healthcare system to ensure that people can make informed decisions about their health. A recent study found that the majority of Americans (88%) have health literacy limitations, defined as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use information and services to information health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”

Whether your organization is a pharmaceutical company, medical device manufacturer, payer, provider or advocacy group – if you are talking to patients, you have a role to play in supporting more informed decision-making.

Here are three priorities to help promote health literacy:

1. Establish standards for clear communication

It is important to use clear, concise and accurate language, especially because the healthcare space is filled with medical terminology and concepts that may be confusing to the average person. To promote health literacy, use plain language when possible, think about your audience and their reading level, and provide information people can use and understand with the skills they have. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality established the Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit to help improve communication with simple strategies such as leveraging readability formulas and understandability assessments for written communication, as well as designating a team member or committee for final review of materials. Visuals aids, such as simple illustrations, graphics or videos, can be especially beneficial when communicating to individuals with low literacy skills.   

2. Build trust by using trusted sources

Research shows that having a medical provider who has shared lived experience builds trust and improves outcomes. Similarly, utilizing trusted and familiar voices that are representative of the communities that we are trying to reach helps ensure that patients both listen and understand. We do this by working with patients who share their personal stories, but also by identifying the right clinical voices and thought leaders to engage in campaigns.

3. Know your audience

In order to effectively communicate with our target audiences, we have to know where best to reach them. Patient education takes place in a variety of places and through a variety of channels. We must meet patients and educate them where they are – whether physically in the doctor’s office, on social media, or through a microsite. Research provides us with the insights to help us tailor messaging to ensure that we can break through the clutter, while also keeping in mind their needs, concerns, preferences and behaviors.  

We’re focused on important systemic changes to improve price transparency, enhance access and preventive care, and support more consumerism.  However, we must all prioritize improving health literacy because we cannot be successful in any other initiative without it.

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