HR.com: How to Increase Health Care Literacy – and Who Should Be Driving the Change
For employees to feel their best – physically, emotionally and mentally – they must feel empowered to make smart health care decisions for themselves and their families. This need has never been stronger than over the past year, with employees focusing more critically on health care due to the pandemic. That’s why the 2030 Healthy People initiative, sponsored by HHS, has dedicated the next 10 years to improving health care literacy – so employees can take control of their health and, by extension, their financial wellness.
The Healthy People 2030 initiative encompasses both personal health literacy – the degree to which individuals can find, understand and use information/services to inform health-related decisions – and organizational health literacy – the degree to which organizations can enable those individuals’ health-related decisions. Clearly, employers must step up to provide their employees accurate and timely information so they can make the most of their health care benefits.
Employers Must be a Trusted Source for Accurate Benefits Information
According to DirectPath’s 2020 consumer report, The Health Care Literacy Gap, 33% of consumers receive health care information from family members, friends or acquaintances – few, if any, of whom are health care experts intimately familiar with that employee’s circumstances or health plan options. Another 40% of respondents reported that they self-educated using online resources or other materials. While online resources can be helpful for general information, unless individuals have a basic grasp of terminology and concepts it can be difficult to evaluate and apply what they read online to their situation. Worse, the accuracy of online information on health care topics ranges from a dismal 25% to a high of 81%, so there’s no guarantee that what employees are learning is correct.
In short, benefits communications must cover the health care “basics” as well as the specifics what is and isn’t covered by a plan, how the plan works and how to maximize coverage as cost-effectively as possible.
Benefits Communications Must be Year-Round
To help employees think critically about their health care, employers must communicate with employees about their benefits clearly and consistently throughout the year. Health care knowledge tends to be “use it or lose it”—if we’re not constantly learning new things (or refreshing our memory) we may not be making the best, most-educated decisions about our coverage and care. Employers cannot expect employees to remember and reference the information they were given during open enrollment months after it happens. Instead, they must ensure employees have access to information at all times – even when they’re remote.
Year-round benefits communications not only educates employees about their benefits, but also ensures they know where they can go to find out more. Then, next time an employee or their family member needs health care, they know what resources they can trust.
Employers Must Offer Personalized, One-on-One Support
To be truly effective in educating and engaging their employees—and to make it easy for those employees who may just prefer to ask specific questions, employers should provide “live” access to benefits experts. At minimum, telephonic or chat-function access to a benefits educator will ensure that employees can get their questions answered promptly, accurately, and with their personal situation in mind.
Many employers are also providing access to health care advocates –trained professionals who not only educate employees but help them resolve some of the more challenging aspects of health care: researching and resolving billing errors, paying medical bills, determining if a provider is in-network, arranging a second opinion or understanding what is covered under their health plan.
Over time, this real-time, year-round access will support more informed health care decisions and lower out-of-pocket spending for employees – which, in turn, reduces costs for the employer. It also gradually improves employee health literacy for a lifetime of cost-effective decision-making.
As emphasized by the 2030 Healthy People initiative, health literacy is a national priority. There is urgency around this issue as employees continue to spend far more on health care than they may need to – largely due to lack of understanding and transparency. While largely under-addressed until recent years, health literacy must live at the center of all employers’ benefits strategies in 2021. Improving health literacy improves employee wellness, reduces unnecessary spending – for employees and employers – and even improves employees’ satisfaction with benefits. It is an invaluable lifelong skill that will change the lives of employees and their families for years to come.
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(Kim Buckey, vice president of client services, DirectPath)