On March 9, 2016 we had a SiriusXM 111 radio segment on “Health Literacy – How Are We Doing as a Nation?” So what is health literacy? The United States government defines it this way: Health literacy is the degree to which people gather, process, understand, and assimilate the basic health information and services they need to make reasonable health choices. The panel of experts who participated in this broadcast, Brian Dolan of Rallyhealth, Jennifer Manganello, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Albany School of Public Health, and Susan Sargent of Sargent Healthcare Management Advisors, added that a key ingredient missing from this definition is awareness. In other words: You have to know about something before you can do anything about it.
The issue of not being health literate is important these days, considering the amount of information out there and the complexity of healthcare. Manifestations of poor health literacy show up in non-adherence to medications, inappropriate interpretation of label instructions, and poor overall national health. These in turn lead to higher costs in care.

So the question is: How can we as a society at a very basic level improve health literacy? Simple things such as using pictures, redesigning documents for improved readability, and text messaging can help immensely in improving health. Companies such as Merck are leading the charge in improving instructions for ease of use and interpretation. Basic classes in high school are also helping adolescents in making good lifestyle choices according to Dr. Manganello.

What about payers and providers? What are they doing to improve health literacy? Teaching initiatives around providers noticing and responding to patient cues in relation to their understanding of what is being said are increasing, so that appropriate information can be provided based on the patient’s health literacy. Navigators at payers (people live on the phone and artificial intelligence) are also helping consumers make better choices. Susan Sargent explained that surrogates (e.g. relatives) are becoming more involved in the care of their elders. Sargent also suggested that patience is a virtue in ensuring that elders receive appropriate care for their health.

What about patients with chronic conditions? According to Brian Dolan, game theory is creeping into health literacy in engaging consumers. This helps patients understand their health status more fully and provides them with feedback on what their “relative age” might be related to their chronic condition which engages them in the process.

There is a long way to go in improving health literacy and we as a society are just scratching the surface. Surprisingly, most of these initiatives center on very simple concepts – concepts that likely won’t cost us a lot more.