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Why your HR team needs a health literacy program

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Providing quality healthcare coverage to your employees and ensuring they care for themselves is an important way to make your workforce feel valued, motivated, and inspired. Healthy workers bring their best selves to work, which benefits the business by producing better results. Having said that, it is crucial for businesses to teach their staff members how to use these benefits. If employees cannot take advantage of these benefits, the organization will suffer as a result. In fact, low health literacy is thought to cost the U.S. economy up to $236 billion annually as a result of medical errors, increased disease and disability, lost income, and poor public health.

The ability to understand and engage with information about one’s health is called health literacy, and there are two types. There is personal health literacy and there is organizational health literacy:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to make informed health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to make informed health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

While nearly 9 out of 10 adults struggle with health literacy we see a cascade of correlations that result from a lack of literacy. Even those with strong literacy levels occasionally struggle to understand the flurry of information coming from the healthcare system. Low health literacy strongly correlates with increased rates of smoking which (in turn) correlates with higher rates of obesity and babies born with low birthrates; thus, low literacy impacts everything from an individual’s productivity on the job due to increased health risk, lack of benefit use mitigating and managing health risks, and extended impact to family members managing negative health events like low birthweight.

Improving the health literacy of your workforce

A workforce that can understand their health-related services is not only healthier overall, but it can also have a lucrative impact on the company’s bottom line. In a study published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, people who read patient education materials and communicate their understanding back to the doctor see an average decrease of $675 to their healthcare costs each year and are 32% less likely to be hospitalized. There are several ways organizations can improve the health literacy of their staff, including:

  • Fund a Health Literacy Program
    • Fund a health literacy program and get employees the assistance they need to get started. It’s crucial to have options so that people can ask questions, no matter how simple, or learn how to ask questions about a procedure that their provider recommends. The promotion of health literacy can lead to enhanced individual skills and less occupational hazards and injuries.
  • Incorporate Health Literacy Into Trainings
  • View Employees as Their Whole Selves
    • Another crucial aspect of health literacy is supporting a Whole Person Approach to Health. In addition to several social and physical factors, an individual’s work environment has a pronounced impact on their overall health.

How we’re fostering health literacy in our communities

Here at Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, we’re working to Normalize the Conversation around mental health in Arkansas by providing online educational resources and investing in tools that help eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health care and make that care more accessible to all Arkansans, including our employees. We provide our employees access to a certified care management team because we know navigating the healthcare system can be challenging. Additionally, employee members have access to our patient portal, a useful tool that provides a central location for them to access key information about their health and benefits, making it easier to understand and utilize offerings.

It is important to understand how you can help employees in laying the groundwork for their health literacy so they can become more self-assured in their healthcare choices and, ideally, get greater results. Better outcomes, healthy employees and happy organizations.

Dr. Aaron Novotny

Director, Health Economics

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Dr. Aaron Novotny, Ph.D., M.S. is a director of health economics at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, where he works to examine the economic impact of clinical services and population health interventions on members’ outcomes and understand how community characteristics impact members’ health trajectories and manifest as regional health disparities. In addition to his role at Arkansas Blue Cross, he is also an adjunct professor at the Fay Boozman College of Public Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences where he works with other faculty members on research projects regarding population health and dynamics while serving on dissertation committees.