Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
Improving Health Literacy

Improving Health Literacy

improving-health-literacy- image0Many years ago, when I was a student in health care administration at Trinity University in San Antonio, I remember one professor said the best way to improve health care in our country is to improve literacy. At the time, I thought that statement a bit odd. But, it has stayed with me over the years and I have come to understand what he was talking about.

Health literacy is not simply knowing how to read. It entails a set of skills that include reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations. Health literacy, as defined by the Institute of Medicine, 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." Here is an example: the ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles. There are many other examples, like scheduling and keeping track of doctor appointments, reading medical education brochures, understanding doctor's directions and consent forms, and the ability to negotiate complex health care systems, including the use of the Internet.

So, it was with some interest that I read a recent study indicating that more than 47 percent of U.S. adults lack the literacy skills needed to meet the general demands of our current society. Furthermore, the same study pointed out that only 14 percent of health care consumers understand basic health insurance concepts such as deductibles and coinsurance, and only 11 percent can correctly calculate their expected out-of-pocket costs from a standard health plan. This is noteworthy. I am not saying this because these concepts are simple. Indeed, even those of us who have worked in health care for years can be perplexed with insurance coverage and its myriad of rules when asked by a loved one to look at a shoebox full of statements from various health care providers and make sense of them. I have been there with my own late parents. Understanding health care bills can be daunting to anyone.

But, I am mentioning this situation because it has serious implications for the health care system. Uninformed and misinformed consumers are unlikely to meet the ever-increasing shared responsibility placed upon them by providers and payers. Texas Tech Physicians has a responsibility to help people. We can do this in a host of ways, starting with providing reliable, comprehensible, and useful information through talking to patients, written materials, our website and our portal. It makes sense that we do all that is possible to help our patients “get it” and this is most consistent with our mission of improving the health of the people we serve with a spirit of compassion and knowledge.