Why you should care about health literacy

Health care in the U.S. is extremely complex, but even basic health literacy remains a problem across the country. An article by Sofia Garcia, assistant professor of medical social sciences, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in The Atlantic noted 35 percent of English-speaking adults in the U.S. have only a basic or below basic understanding of common health terms. For hospitals, this means approximately 77 million Americans lack necessary health knowledge. With more consumers now having health coverage (many of whom have burdensome personal cost responsibilities due to high deductibles) because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), health systems could be faced with increasing patient collection challenges. Health literacy is going to become an even greater concern within the health care community, but adopting patient friendly billing can help patients understand their bills without being confused by complicated health terms.

America’s health literacy problem
Health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions,” and a person’s health literacy is dependent on his or her communications skills, culture and context, according to Health.gov.

Low health literacy creates a dual problem for hospitals. These patients tend to utilize health services more, resulting in them having higher health care costs, according to Health.gov. And then these patients have a more difficult time paying their bills because of the higher costs. However, many often don’t truly understand their specific health care coverage.

As a researcher of patient-centered care, Garcia wrote patients have to navigate a maze of information to understand their health plans, let alone what certain terms on their medical bills mean. Low health literacy ends up costing $100 billion every year, according to research Garcia cited.

Insurers and others in the health care community have taken steps to help consumers improve their knowledge of health care terms, such as by using simple phrasing, but consumers may require additional efforts from hospitals.

“Good health literacy is achieved when people’s abilities and preferences are well-matched with the demands and resources of the systems they are navigating,” Garcia wrote. “Failing to prioritize it will cost us dearly.”

According to Health.gov, using plain language, breaking up information into understandable groups and ensuring the key points are presented first can help consumers improve their health literacy. This is where patient friendly billing comes in.

Make it easy for patients to understand their bills
Patient friendly billing takes the complicated patient billing system and puts it in a format that patients can understand. By doing this, patients are able to see – and understand – the most important information right from the beginning and can make more timely payments because of it. Many hospitals find themselves with low patient collections simply because they haven’t made it easy for those who don’t have a thorough knowledge of health care terms. Something that makes sense to a physician or a hospital CEO might not make sense to a layperson. A breakdown of care costs can end up confusing patients, even if they do have a strong understanding of basic health care terms. Adopting patient friendly billing ensures all patients can easily understand what they owe and pay off their medical bills in a timely manner.