There’s no end in sight.

Total costs of providing medical and pharmacy benefits are expected to rise 5%, according to an annual survey by the National Business Group on Health.

That means employers at big companies can expect to pay around $15,000 per worker in the coming year. Blame it on costly claims, specialty medications, and certain diseases, say many employers.

But here’s something you may not know:

Health literacy — the ability to understand and act on health information — plays a role, too. According to a University of Connecticut study, low health literacy costs the US healthcare system about $238 billion a year.

Simply put, when people don’t have the knowledge they need to make good decisions about their health, they make poorer decisions — choices that lead to poorer health and higher costs.

Low health literacy costs more. High health literacy costs less.

Consider these scenarios:

  1. An employee’s child sprains her ankle. In a panic, the parent rushes the child to the ER. They rack up a huge bill, even though they could have treated the child at home for free.
  2. A doctor prescribes an expensive medicine for one of your staff. The employee doesn’t know to ask for a generic version, so they end up paying much more for the brand-name drug.
  3. A 53-year-old worker puts off his colonoscopy year after year, saying he doesn’t have time for silly tests. Doctors don’t find he has cancer until much later, resulting in expensive hospital bills and treatments — not to mention pain, suffering, and weeks or even months of missed work —or worse.

In each scenario, improving health literacy could mean better health for less money. Studies show that people with low health literacy tend to have more health claims, more hospital stays, more trips to the ER, less compliance with treatment plans, and higher death rates.

In contrast, people with high health literacy tend to have fewer health claims, fewer needs for special services, more compliance with medication and treatment plans, and better health overall.

People with high health literacy tend to have fewer health claims, fewer needs for special services, more compliance with medication and treatment plans, and better health overall.

Finding the Right Health Literacy Resources

Improving health literacy isn’t easy. “There’s no quick fix,” said EdLogics advisor Brian Primack, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Research, Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, in a recent EdLogics webinar. Still, Dr. Primack added, “We are moving the needle.”

If you’re an employer, a human resources manager, or other business leader who’s committed to finding ways to improve health literacy in your organization, these resources can help:

Developing a Plan in Your Organization

Use the CDC’s workbook, sample action plan, and links to government sites to create your organization’s health literacy plan. Includes state and county estimates of low literacy.

Health Literacy Online

You know your company needs a health literacy program, but you’re not sure where to start? This guide will walk you through the basics, including best practices and simple, concrete tips for writing and designing good content.

Everyday Words for Public Health Communication

The first rule in developing health content for low-literacy users: Avoid doctor-speak. This simple tool shows you how, with an index of commonly used medical terms and their plain-language alternatives.

Webinar: Improving Health Literacy: What Works & Why

Health literacy expert Russell Rothman, MD, MPP, of Vanderbilt University and gamification expert Brian Primack, MD, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh share an overview of what makes health literacy programs effective.

EdLogics’ gamified learning platform combines engaging, personalized content and activities with unique incentives to help users improve their health literacy. Want a demo? Contact us!

A version of this article was originally published 10/25/2018.

Originally posted 
Jan 17, 2024
Health Literacy