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Health literacy is multi-layered. Thankfully, so are the new resources that support it.

Why is healthcare so confusing? Navigating its complexity is the last thing a patient needs when their health is on the line. Yet, this confusion happens every day — even to career healthcare professionals who understand how the system works. Many startups have been launched to "fix healthcare" due to a founder's personal negative experience.

The Health Resources and Services Administration defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Without healthcare literacy, navigating the complexities of the healthcare system becomes impossible. It is the foundation of patient self-advocacy.

Addressing health literacy goes to the heart of literacy itself. It has as much to do with how information is presented as how it is understood.

"Health literacy represents a lot of opportunity on the healthcare industry side. We can do a lot better than where we have been and could have better outcomes." — Kathy Rauch, HANYS

Health literacy is one of six social determinants of health domains that DataGen uses to help providers measure social risk via the non-clinical vulnerabilities that affect individuals and the community. In addition to health literacy, SDOH risk factors include the domains of digital competency, finance, food, housing and transportation.

For health literacy, communication, provider education and technology are the critical linkages to better outcomes, rooted in the human caring that keeps providers on the front lines. This is the new standard of care.

Are you communicating as well as you think?

Think of how quickly misunderstanding and even conflict can arise due to poor communication. Add the complexities of healthcare decision-making and the effects are amplified. The J.D. Power 2022 U.S. Commercial Member Health Plan Study found that commercial health plan customers are dissatisfied with traditional communication methods (e.g., text, website, mobile app).

In addition to using an effective communication method, “health literacy is about speaking in a language that patients and their loved ones can understand,” notes Kathy Rauch, Vice President of Quality Advocacy, Research and Innovation, Post-Acute/Continuing Care, HANYS.

This includes offering resources in a patient's primary language, addressing any disabilities or impairments they may have, and respecting their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Technology, paired with robust social risk analysis, can help bridge the gap. HANYS-endorsed LanguageLine Solutions®, for example, provides translation services via phone, video, document or onsite in more than 240 languages.

Language lines are just the beginning of health literacy and health equity — with broader efforts aided by provider education, technology, data and insight.

Addressing health literacy is key to patient care

"It's easy to assume health literacy — to move through the patient visit checklist and point-of-care EHR recommendations, to assume that caring is enough and you've done your part . . . Without addressing literacy, you haven't actually checked the box," says Rauch.

As Rauch notes, "If a provider tells a patient, ‘You need to be on a sodium-restricted diet,’ how do you know if they understand what that means if you don’t ask?"

Medications are another example. The very first medication error is prescribing a drug a patient can't afford.

SDOH metrics give you the confidence to ask

Would you ask a friend if they needed help, knowing you couldn't provide it? What about a patient?

Having the resources to help gives providers the confidence to ask patients about health literacy. Providers empowered with education and resources can engage patients in meaningful healthcare conversations that can prevent readmissions and support disease management and better outcomes.

Data is key to understanding patients’ SDOH risks — including health literacy challenges. DataGen licenses SDOH data through Socially Determined. The health literacy data include the following social risk influencer metrics:

  • population without health insurance for a given area;
  • lack of educational attainment;
  • percent of population over age 25 and their level education (no high school diploma; diploma or GED; or secondary education from some college to associate, bachelor's, or advanced degrees); and
  • index describing the overall health environment for a given area.

Each of DataGen's social determinants domains — digital competency, finance, food, housing and transportation, in addition to health literacy — includes its own unique influencer metrics, 42 in total, and are available at the ZIP code level. Through social risk data and analysis, DataGen links courageous conversations to a brave new world of understanding, answers and outcomes.


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