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The Importance of Improving Health Literacy

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From Scott C. Ratzan, MD, MPA, Vice President, Global Health, Government Affairs & Policy, Johnson & Johnson

Years of working to improve worldwide public health has taught me that giving people access to care and medicines are only part of improving health. Almost as important is what people do once they have access. Can they find the care that they need in a sometimes complex health care system? Do they understand the instructions their doctor or nurse has given them? Do they have the basic tools to improve or change their behavior? 

The way people interact with the health system has great impact on whether they can improve their health. And improving people’s understanding of health information is an important first step. “Health literacy,” as this skill is called, is the degree to which people have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make good health decisions. 

Limited health literacy affects people of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels, but its greatest impact is among lower socioeconomic and minority groups, where it underlies health disparities. Limited health literacy is also linked to worse health outcomes and higher costs. 

Two decades of research shows that today's health information is presented in a way that isn't usable by most Americans. Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in hospitals, clinics, retail stores, media, and community centers. Without clear information and an understanding of prevention and self-management of conditions, people are more likely to skip necessary medical tests. They also end up in the emergency room more often, and they have a hard time managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. 

So it was encouraging to see the Department of Health and Human Services announce their National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy.  It’s worth checking out. Essentially the plan entails providing everyone with access to accurate and actionable health information, and supporting life-long learning of skills that promote good health. This comes at an important time, particularly since the recently-passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes provisions to address health literacy.

A summary of the plan provides a good sense of why this is important:

Not only has low health literacy been tied to poor health, but the economic consequences of this silent epidemic are staggering. The cost of low health literacy in the U.S. is estimated to be between $106 billion to $236 billion a year.  As we face the challenges of simultaneously containing health care costs, improving quality and expanding access, it is vital that we advocate for a systematic approach to creating effective, innovative health communications as a key to improving health literacy.

My colleagues at Johnson & Johnson and I have worked closely with public and private organizations to get this critical issue the attention it deserves. The work of many organizations, including Agency for Health Research and Quality, the UCLA Johnson & Johnson Healthcare Institute and the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy, has helped to elevate health literacy to its current place in the national dialogue and I believe that continued cooperation between the public and private sector will be essential to the successful implementation of any health literacy plan. As the National Action Plan moves forward, private companies such as Johnson & Johnson have the opportunity to use their resources and expertise to assist the HHS in their efforts to improve the overall health of the nation.

There’s much more to come, but as a long-time advocate of improving health literacy, I’m excited about the possibilities this new action plan presents. Steps such as creating systems to make the nation more health literate will be critical in insuring that our health care system remains viable and continues to serve those in need of care.

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