Healthcare Literacy, an Unexpected Employer Challenge

Healthcare literacy may be viewed as a public health or provider challenge, but because employers play such a large role in providing access to healthcare, they are necessarily involved in the issue of healthcare literacy. Both the COVID-19 crisis and the recent focus on racial health disparities have only underscored the importance of addressing healthcare literacy in the workforce.  

Health literacy is defined as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” For employers, this corresponds with how members make decisions about their health. Where do they find information? Do they understand their provider’s care recommendations? Do they think critically about their options, and which services best match their needs, to make a decision?

Many people find the U.S. health system confusing, but some struggle more than others to understand how to interact with the system to get the care they need. Why is this an employer concern? People with low healthcare literacy have worse outcomes and have higher healthcare spend. Multiple studies have shown that people with low healthcare literacy were more likely to be hospitalized, have bad disease outcomes and less likely to utilize preventive care. There is particularly damning evidence of the impact of poor healthcare literacy in people with cancer or diabetes.

Additionally, since low literacy can result in inefficient healthcare choices, there’s a cost impact as well. The annual cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is estimated as $238 billion.

What can employers do to improve healthcare literacy?

Given employers serve as an access point to healthcare, they have the opportunity to improve the health literacy of their members, reducing inefficiency and, potentially, cost. Here are a few strategies to consider: 

  1. Assess your population
    Do you know how many of your members are pursuing their recommended preventive care? How many of your diabetic population are following best care practices? The first step in any new strategy is assessment, and addressing health literacy is no different. Gaps in disease management identified by your medical carrier or low preventive visit completion rates can both be indicators your population is struggling with their healthcare.

  2. Go back to the basics
    You may live and breathe benefits, but your members do not. Routinely providing information on basic access topics, such as how the insurance applies to an office visit, where to find a provider, where to look up your recent diagnosis, can help members best use their benefits. Additionally, be conscientious of your language. If you want to generate interest and excitement in a new offering – for example, a diabetes management vendor that helps track medication compliance – focus on the benefit for the individual rather than a description of the vendor.

  3. Communicate information about benefits year round.
    All employers provide helpful information about navigating employee benefits during open enrollment, but for many the communication stops there. Resources need to be accessible year round as members are using their benefits. Provide educational tips and resources so members have accurate information readily available.

  4. Give members a place to go to learn more.
    People with low healthcare literacy need help getting started. Give your members a safe way to find information and get their questions answered. Creating psychologically safe options is especially important to ensure members feel comfortable getting help with questions – from very basic questions to how to research a procedure their provider recommended. Options to consider include a dedicated microsite, recurring communications, or a help line.

  5. Remember technology is a tool to help reach employees, but not an entire communication strategy
    Having a microsite or communication app can be a great way to reach employees about the health options they have available to them. However, it is important to make sure the technology you use is part of a cohesive employee experience. If an employee is already struggling to use their benefits, having to dig through multiple, disparate company resources to find information does not make it easier.

Employers are now on the frontlines on the battle to improve healthcare literacy. It is important to step back and understand how you can help members build the foundations of their healthcare literacy, like learning your ABCs, so they can grow to be confident in their healthcare decisions and, ideally, realize better outcomes.

We are diving deeper into this conversation at HLTH VRTL 2020, taking place October 12-16, 2020. We encourage employers to bring their voices to the table by joining the conversation. Register here or qualify to attend free of charge through the Hosted Buyer Program. Additionally, Mercer is pleased to serve as one of the lead sponsors for the “Health Equity Program” at HLTH VRTL 2020. This program will look deeply into some of the racial inequities further exposed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will explore possible strategies and actions that employers and other healthcare organizations might implement to help achieve better outcomes.

Tabit Xthona
by Tabit Xthona

Senior Consulting Analyst, Mercer Health & Benefits

Register for Mercer US Health News to receive weekly e-mail updates.