We mostly think of the term "literacy" in the context of reading and writing. But for many Americans, basic literacy isn't all that matters—healthcare literacy can actually mean the difference between life and death.
Obtaining quality healthcare in the United States is difficult for many people, particularly those who are part of vulnerable populations. Health insurance requirements may be difficult to understand, good coverage is expensive, and options are confusing. This is where health literacy becomes crucial: the ability to understand and communicate health information and services.
If a person has trouble understanding or even obtaining information about their healthcare options, then they're not going to be able to get the coverage that best suits their needs. This type of poor health literacy can have devastating consequences and disproportionately affects vulnerable populations.
Health Literacy Matters
Health insurance benefits can prove confusing – to say the least. For many people in vulnerable populations, the inability to process health information or understand their coverage can have both health and financial consequences. Poor healthcare literacy can result in these populations having lower rates of flu vaccination, incurring higher healthcare costs, and not receiving proper preventative care, resulting in the more frequent use of emergency services.
These devastating consequences have led some providers to work with individuals and communities to bolster health literacy and ensure the best possible treatment outcomes for community members. For instance, providers such as VA Health Care help veterans to learn more about available resources, such as self-care interventions and veterans' health insurance.
It is important to come together to protect vulnerable populations. Minorities, people who have limited English proficiency, veterans, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, and people with lower educational opportunities are all at a higher risk of being affected by the consequences of poor health literacy. As we look toward the future of healthcare, we need to ensure that everyone has a basic level of healthcare knowledge so they can make choices that will benefit them.
Providers That Are Making a Difference
Though health literacy is still largely ignored within the American healthcare system, some providers are stepping up to help vulnerable populations. There are many great examples of how simple steps can make a big difference, such as for patients who do not speak English fluently and face communication barriers.
One medical student, after seeing physicians struggling to communicate with a Brazilian patient who had limited English proficiency (LEP), thought that maybe they weren't getting the full story of the man's health problems. By calling in an interpreter, the student was able to make a diagnosis possible, helping to bridge an important communication gap. This story illustrates just how important interpreters are in removing healthcare literacy barriers for vulnerable populations.
Providers need to be willing to use the tools available to them in order to provide all patients with the highest level of care. When it comes to LEP patients, for instance, there are many phone translation services available to healthcare organizations that do not have on-site translation. For patients who might not understand the importance of preventative care, physicians can direct patients to appropriate resources and support. These small steps are crucial for improving health literacy in the United States.
Addressing the Needs of America's Changing Population
The cultural landscape of the United States is changing once again, and we are seeing growing and shifting populations. As immigration, aging, and income disparity rise, there are more groups than ever that need to gain basic healthcare literacy. Without understanding how healthcare works, or even how to communicate effectively with their doctors, these vulnerable patients won't have access to the care they need.
We're beginning to see a shift toward patient-centered care, which places the emphasis on preventative care, rather than reactive care. However, healthcare literacy is a key factor in creating this new culture of health and wellness. Unless patients understand how to care for themselves and how to access the preventative care they need, they will continue to utilize more expensive and reactive forms of healthcare.
To address the needs of America's changing population, we need to remember that it's not just about doctors' knowledge—it's about patients' understanding as well.
Moving Forward with Healthcare Literacy
A 2018 study conducted by healthcare experts regarding possible interventions to improve community health literacy reveals that healthcare literacy has been poorly researched up to this point. The study indicated that the way forward is a structural change.
We can't ask vulnerable populations to take on all the responsibility. To move forward with healthcare literacy, providers and administrators need to create systemic and organizational change in the way they educate and assist patients.