The health literacy challenge

As new payment and healthcare delivery modules evolve, it is clear that patients must be more engaged in their healthcare if we are to improve outcomes while reducing costs. Part of the problem with motivating patients to take a greater role in becoming and staying healthy is that they don’t always understand what they need to do.  Poor levels of health literacy make it difficult to have fully engaged and involved patients. That’s the challenge. And the opportunity.

Did you know that low health literacy costs the U.S. economy between $106 billion and $238 billion annually? And that the future costs of low health literacy that could result from lack of action on this issue, today, could burden future generations of Americans with annual costs closer to the range of $1.6 trillion to $3.6 trillion?

Mind the gap

With the advent of integrated, interoperable health IT systems, we are opening a new frontier in medicine. From predictive analytics to precision medicine, these capabilities, enabled with next generation health IT, will revolutionize healthcare.

But our patients’  “health IQ” isn’t likely to keep up with this acceleration toward more sophisticated and personalized medicine. The widening gap between what a physician needs to explain to a patient and a patient’s capacity to understand has the potential to undermine the provider/patient relationship.

Patient portal is a leading health literacy improvement tool

Integrating patient portal functionality into electronic health record (EHR) systems has improved bi-directional communication between provider and patient. Patient portals have the potential to help raise health literacy by digitally pointing patients to health education sources they can understand, and to present health information in language and formats that incorporate best practices of the science of health literacy.

In my professional roles of practicing physician, chief medical officer of a major health IT company, and vice chair of the Electronic Health Record Association (EHRA), I’m constantly surrounded by health IT tools and opportunities that can be used to help improve the health literacy of patients. Regardless of the vendor, patient portal functionality is the most readily available and current health IT tool that providers can use to disseminate – and patients can use to absorb – health information presented at levels and in formats readily understandable by diverse patient populations.

Sources to help you create health education content… that works!

The Culture, Language and Health Literacy section of the Health Resources and Service Administration’s website – an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – provides a good summary of how effective communication contributes to health literacy and health equity. It includes “Essential Health Literacy Tools” published by leading organizations and institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and HHS among others. You also can explore the NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine and its “MedlinePlus” magazine, which has extensive how-to information on writing easy-to-read health materials. And AARP® provides a good recap, here, explaining why health literacy is particularly important for older adults.

Use health IT to help educate patients… but keep it simple!

It is difficult to ask patients to participate in their own treatment decisions, including evaluating treatment options, if they don’t understand their disease process and the subsequent treatment plans available to them.

As providers, and also in our roles as healthcare IT experts and health informatics professionals, our efforts need to include building systems and protocols that enable patients to make the informed decisions required to take on a bigger role in managing their own health.  But before leveraging any technology platform, the key is: Keep the content, and how it’s delivered, simple!

“Keeping it simple” is always the best place to start when creating health education content for any target patient population. Yes, do the work to understand how your target audiences prefer to receive information and how they process it. But, when you keep it simple, you’ll have a better chance to truly reach them. And help move the needle of health literacy across the nation.

See why more than 20 million patients use NextGen® Patient Portal.

Want the bigger population health picture? Then NextGen Care™ is for you.