Offering employer-sponsored health benefits is just one step in helping employees maintain overall wellness. Research shows failing to educate employees about their health coverage, common illnesses and preventive care could prove costly for companies. According to the nonprofit Center for Health Care Strategies, poor health literacy can lead to medical errors, increased illnesses, loss of wages and poor public health. The cost to the economy — $235 billion every year.
“Low health literacy has been shown to not only impact the workforce through absenteeism and lost productivity, but it impacts entire communities,” said Dr. Aaron Novotny, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield director of health economics. “For example, research shows a strong correlation with increased rates of smoking, which correlates with higher rates of obesity and babies born with low birthweight.”
There are two types of health literacy, personal health literacy and 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
- Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand and use information to make informed health-related decisions
A workforce that can understand their health-related services is healthier overall, and that can 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 health care costs each year and are 32% less likely to be hospitalized.
“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 health care choices and, ideally, get greater results,” Dr. Novotny adds.
While most companies provide documents containing an explanation of coverages and costs during their open enrollment periods each year, it might not be enough. The Literacy Action of Central Arkansas reports nearly a quarter of Arkansans, about half a million people, are at or below the lowest level of literacy, meaning they can read short texts but are only functionally literate with a very basic vocabulary. Thirty-eight percent of Arkansans are said to be near proficient but struggle with text-based tasks.
There are several ways employers can improve the health literacy of their staff:
- 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. Employers can improve their workforce’s health literacy by adding a layer of health literacy education to current workforce trainings. Helping employees build this skill will allow them to best utilize their benefits, understanding all the options that are available to them.
- 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.
“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,” said Dr. Novotny. “Healthy workers bring their best selves to work, which benefits the business by producing better results.”