Importance of Prioritizing Health Literacy During Open Enrollment

Updated on November 20, 2022

The ability to understand different health policies, coverage, decisions and events within the healthcare industry is crucial to an individual’s overall health, yet many adults continue to struggle with understanding healthcare information and lack the literacy skills to make appropriate decisions. Regardless of their overall literacy skills, individuals across the country are still confused and often misinterpret healthcare. In fact, recent reports from the National Library of Medicine found approximately 80 million adults in the United States are estimated to have limited or low health literacy.

Unfortunately, a lack of health literacy has been found to have a direct correlation to negative health equity, ultimately creating a barrier to successfully achieve positive health outcomes. Health literacy must be prioritized by the patients themselves, but also by providers in order to obtain the correct and necessary form of healthcare for individual needs. Without knowledge around medical terms, health insurance options or different treatment plans, individuals are not able to make accurate decisions which can ultimately lead to significant health issues down the road.

The importance of health literacy is especially crucial during this time of year as open enrollment is underway. Open enrollment is an annual period of time where people can make changes to their elected employee benefits, specifically health insurance. However, consumers can only make the right health plan choices when they actually understand what benefits or different coverage options are available.

Consequences of low health literacy skills

Health literacy goes beyond just reading labels or instructions from doctors. The skill includes putting the information into action, such as taking the accurate amount of medicine or following pre-surgery directions correctly. Those with a low understanding of their own health or what doctors are recommending will ultimately have poor health outcomes as they will frequent the hospital or emergency room more than necessary, make ample errors with their medications and have trouble managing their health problems. 

Not to mention, they will also most likely pay out of pocket for treatments or equipment that could’ve been covered through insurance had they chosen a health insurance plan that best fit their health conditions. One BMC Health Services Research study even found patients with inadequate health literacy were more likely to revisit the emergency department compared to patients with adequate health literacy.

Although there are numerous negative outcomes of low health literacy, the study also stated physicians are usually unaware of the low levels of comprehension and the effect it has on their patients. It is not common for literacy to be evaluated or made note of in administrative documents or patient records, however there are still communication barriers between doctors and patients. This lack of understanding by doctors ultimately puts patients at risk when being discharged or told specific treatment or lifestyle instructions to follow. 

How providers can assist individuals in understanding their options

Clear communication is key to helping people understand their health plan options. To help individuals become well-informed to ensure healthier outcomes, providers can take the following steps to improve patients’ understanding of their individual needs and options:

1. Ensure easy access to health information.

Relationships between patients and providers can be improved by making information like background packets, videos, forms and more, easily accessible. This can be done by promoting in-person or telehealth visits to go over coverage options and encouraging further communication, questions and clarification regarding individual needs. 

2. Acknowledge ranges of health literacy.

According to the CDC, across the country, minorities experience higher rates of poor health compared to other communities. Organizations, healthcare providers and policymakers can all work together to prevent health inequality and develop programs that meet these communities’ specific needs. This can include informative sessions for overviews on plans, providing information in multiple languages and encouraging health professionals to adjust practices based on individuals health literacy levels.

3. Provide best practices in order to teach professionals how to communicate options.

Best practices can include speaking in plain language and avoiding overly medical jargon. Once you give any recommendations on health plans or actions to take, have the individual rephrase what has been instructed to ensure they understood. Be respectful, speak slowly and clearly, without sounding patronizing. Even providing images and graphics along with instructions can be necessary in order for individuals to take action. 

Implement New Practices To Ensure Healthier Communities

Low levels of health literacy ultimately leads to negative effects on individual health, well-being and care. There are ways providers can improve communication of health plans and coverage that can ultimately minimize visits to hospitals and increase the usage of preventative care and services. Improving the relationship between providers, patients and overall communities will increase the likelihood of patient satisfaction with their care and higher engagement with health professionals. Information around health and coverage plans can be difficult to understand, even for those with high health literacy skills. That is why it is so important to understand the consequences of low literacy, prioritize clear communication and educate those who need assistance with conveying instructions to those with all levels of health literacy. 

Ryan Bullock is COO of Aeroflow Healthcare.