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Survey finds Americans’ health literacy lacking

Apr 06 2015

Knowledge is the key to making smarter decisions about health care, but it turns out too many of us lack sufficient “health literacy” to figure out what those optimal health care choices are – and how they could affect the cost of care.

A newly released survey of 1,000 adults in the U.S. found that just 18 percent rated as “proficient” in health literacy, the highest level. That’s about the same proportion (17 percent) who scored “below basic,” the lowest level of health literacy. The rest rated either as “basic” (29 percent) or “intermediate” (36 percent). The independent study was commissioned by iTriage, an Aetna-owned health technology company focused on using digital tools to simplify health care for healthier lives.

The greater your health literacy, the better able you are to make cost-effective health care choices, experts say. For instance, someone with high health literacy understands how deductibles and copays affect their costs, and that visiting an in-network doctor costs less than seeing an out-of-network doctor for the same reason. They also understand which care and services would be most appropriate for some conditions. For instance, people with high health literacy know to head to the emergency room – rather than an urgent care facility – for a heart attack.

Low health literacy has huge consequences on individuals, such as increased hospitalization, higher risks of mortality for seniors, lower utilization of preventive health care, and the inability to take medications properly. And it adds a lot of expense to the health care system overall. Experts say low health literacy costs the U.S. healthcare system upwards of $238 billion annually, and contributes significantly to the unnecessary use of medical services, preventable errors, and missed prevention opportunities.

The study shows a clear need for patients to take a more informed and empowered role in managing their health care decisions, according to iTriage President Jim Greiner. “It’s very easy to ignore health care topics or issues you think don’t apply to you,” Greiner said. “But when you find yourself suddenly dealing with one — either for yourself or a loved one — and you’re uninformed, the consequences can be very physically, emotionally, and financially costly. The key is to have access to information before a situation becomes urgent.”

The research also revealed some interesting demographic trends when it comes to health literacy. Among them:

  • Women tend have higher health literacy than men, with 22 percent of women ranked as proficient, compared with 18 percent for men. (Note: See infographic below.)
  • More than a third of 18- to 24-year-olds have below-basic health literacy.
  • Those with “proficient” health literacy were far more likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance.
  • Those with below-basic knowledge were far more likely to be on Medicaid.

Along with the survey findings, iTriage offers ways for everyone involved in health care delivery can work to improve heath literacy. Providers, for instance, could try to use more plain language during office visits and in patient material. Health care providers can also encourage their patients to ask more questions. Employers can educate consumers about their health, wellness, health care and insurance throughout the year, not just at open enrollment time.

The impact could be huge. “If we improve the population’s health literacy by just one level—meaning 83 percent would be at an intermediate or proficient level, leaving only 17 percent at a basic level—we could potentially save $68 billion,” iTriage concludes.

Women and US Health Literacy Rates_Edge