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The Critical Role Social Determinants Of Employment Play In Your Workforce

How well do your employees really understand health benefits? 

Knowledge is power. 
This age-old phrase is tossed around somewhat loosely, wedged into speeches, and offered as an affirmation in academic settings. And it’s true—the more you know, the better you can weigh decisions and make choices that will produce desirable outcomes. We apply this mindset to aspects of business training and career development, but what about health benefits? 

How well do employees really understand the benefits we provide?

Across the board, there is a lack of health information and patient education that creates real inequities in access to quality care. As we consider social determinants of health like housing, food security, education and income, literacy is where we see a divide. And though this might surprise you, the U.S. Education Department identified that up to 30% of unskilled and semiskilled industrial workers were below a fourth-grade level of reading and writing, making it incredibly difficult to read safety manuals and other important documents. 

Literacy plays a central role in health and healthcare, and our employees’ health literacy influences behaviors and their ability to navigate the system. That’s why this is a focus of the World Health Organization’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and a target in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People reports since 2000 when it defined health literacy as
“…the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”  

According to a report by the Milken Institute called "Health Literacy in the United States: Enhancing Assessments and Reducing Disparities", 88% of U.S. adults had limited health literacy based on the most recent population estimates (2003), and 77 million Americans have trouble using health services, obtaining quality care, and maintaining healthy behaviors because of inadequate health literacy. 
Healthcare language is complex at baseline. So where does that leave our workforce when we’re offering benefits packages that people struggle to understand? 

Consider the high cost of claims for managing chronic conditions like diabetes or asthma. And what about medication management, reading test results and even knowing which specialists to see? In a stressed healthcare system with a notable physician shortage and significant wait times for even basic care like well checks, are we preparing our employees to get the care our benefits promise and that they deserve?

October is Health Literacy Month, and there’s no better time than now to evaluate how we communicate health plans so our employees can maximize their benefits and be stronger advocates in the healthcare system. Equitable access to high-quality information allows us to make smart decisions about our health. As employers, we can provide this education in simple ways and make a big difference in how employees utilize benefits and the costs associated with care—avoiding just-in-time E.R. visits, for example.

You can make a difference by doing small things to build health literacy in your workplace. Here are some health literacy tools to get started. 

Develop a glossary. Yes, we’re talking about healthcare vocabulary—because it can be confusing. Even simple terms like copay and out-of-pocket expense can be difficult to interpret. Review your benefits plan and highlight key words. Ask your benefits consultant or plan administrator for any resources they may already have or to assist you with creating a tool like this. 

Invite a pro. Organize a luncheon Q&A session with a social worker, nurse practitioner, or pharmasist who can explain topics like medication management, treatment plans, getting referrals for specialists, and other common issues your employees confront. The idea is to enlist a healthcare professional who can bring knowledge of the system and speak in layman’s terms so the information is understood by everyone. 

Choose a word of the day. If your company turns out a newsletter or regular email, add a healthcare word of the day (or week) to the communications.

Offer a guide. If your business has an intranet platform, consider posting this information online so employees can easily access a healthcare primer when questions arise. 

We invite you to share ways you teach employees about benefits with us. A great time to do this is during our immersive, IN-VALUE-ABLE Conference January 26, February 8 and 9. But let’s start building better healthcare literacy now. Small steps can make a big difference. 

About Health Action Council 
Health Action Council is a not-for-profit 501(c)(6) organization representing mid-and large-size employers that enhance human and economic health through thought leadership, innovative services, and collaboration. It provides value to its members by facilitating projects that improve the quality and moderate the cost of healthcare purchased by its members for their employees, dependents, and retirees. Health Action Council also collaborates with key stakeholders – health plans, physicians, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry – to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare in the community.

Patty Starr bio image

About the author

Patty Starr

Patty Starr is president and CEO of Health Action Council and is responsible for driving the strategic direction of the organization--build stronger, healthier communities where business can thrive. 

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