Democrats & Liberals Archives

Health Literacy Could Save Billions in Health Care Costs Annually

For years, physicians and healthcare providers have been emphasizing the importance of health literacy for their patients. But new studies indicate that the majority of Americans lack an adequate literacy when it comes to their health.

The most recent report proves to be grim. In a survey of 1000 adult individuals in the United States, only 18 percent rated as "proficient" in health literacy. An additional 17 percent scored "below basic." The majority of Americans rated as either having a "basic" (29 percent) or intermediate (36 percent) of knowledge about their health.

Needless to say, these results are shocking, given that health literacy can have a profound impact on your healthcare decisions, according to experts. It's not hard to see why health literacy can play such an important role in receiving the best of care given today's medical landscape.

"Every day millions of Americans with complex medical problems struggle with the rising cost of healthcare, the complicated health insurance market and the shrinking pool of medical professionals," write the experts at Duquesne University's Doctor of Nursing Practice program. "These at-risk populations across the country -- the working poor, elderly, homeless, racial and ethnic minorities, and uninsured - are at an increased risk of developing severe medical problems due to substandard healthcare, poor health literacy, and a higher rate of communicable diseases."

Those who are literate about their health and the way that the system operates have a much easier time navigating some might have a better understanding how deductibles and copays affect their costs, understand the complicated process of visiting in-network doctors vs out-of-network doctors. They might also have a better understanding of which conditions require medical visits, and which institutions are going to be best able to serve them for their particular condition.

On the other hand, low health literacy can have huge consequences in today's medical environment, especially if you're a geriatric patient, pregnant, or at risk for chronic disease. Those with low health literacy are far more likely to experience increased hospitalization; are far more likely to experience medical abuse; experience higher rates of early mortality; and are more likely to use medications incorrectly, or in the most extreme cases, abuse medications they receive.

This adds an enormous cost to the healthcare system as a whole, upwards of $238 billion per year. A lack of health literacy also leads to an unnecessary use of medical services, which contributes to many of the problems present currently in healthcare. Many of these problems that individuals experience when it comes to their health are manageable through preventative care and regular check ins with their healthcare providers.

These studies are indicative that there is a need for patients to take a more informed approach to their healthcare decisions, not just due to costs overall, but also for their own well being.

"It's very easy to ignore health care topics or issues you think don't apply to you," notes iTriage President Jim Greiner. "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."

It also is important that healthcare providers work to improve the patient experience, using more plain language and working to educate, rather than just treat symptoms. Providers can also encourage their patients to ask more questions, provide more educational materials and resources to their patients, and use technology to their advantage when making and explaining diagnoses. The impacts of patient education can be significant.

"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 [per year]," the study concludes.

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