Is health literacy at a tipping point?

Todd Vandenbark

Health literacy logoAccording to an upcoming article in Health Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal of health policy thought and research:

Recent federal policy initiatives, including the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, and the Plain Writing Act of 2010, have brought health literacy to a tipping point—that is, poised to make the transition from the margins to the mainstream.

Much of our health system assumes that every patient we see has strong health literacy skills, and can be strong advocates for themselves. But, as a video in a previous post clearly demonstrated, many ordinary people find the process of understanding and acting correctly on instructions from their providers a difficult challenge. One study cited found that only 12% of U.S. adults have sufficient health literacy skills to understand and effectively utilize health information. This can lead to hospitalization when a patient does not follow prescription instructions correctly, or recognize when their condition is worsening. Healthcare providers and organizations can change their processes and procedures in ways that can make a clear difference:

  • Improve providers’ communication skills.
  • Simplify and make written materials easier to understand.
  • Improve patients’ self-management skills.

This article goes on to illustrate how three recent major policy initiatives are creating an opening to move beyond this cycle of “crisis care:”

Together, these initiatives are moving the concept and practice of health literacy from the margin to the mainstream.