10 Hallmarks of a Health-Literate Organization

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
This post was written by Jessica Fornarotto

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Leadership committed to health literacy and easy access to health information are two attributes of an organizational environment that fosters health literacy, suggests a new study reported in the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

It is possible for a healthcare system to redesign its services to better educate patients in the handling of immediate health issues and also become more savvy consumers of medicine in the long run, says the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (SFGH) study. The study identified ten attributes that healthcare organizations should adopt to make it easier for people to better navigate health information, make sense of services and better manage their own health — assistance for which there is a profound societal need.

The ten attributes of a health-literate organization are:

  1. Has leadership that makes health literacy integral to its mission, structure and operations.

  2. Integrates health literacy into planning, evaluation measures, patient safety and quality improvement.
  3. Prepares the workforce to be health-literate and monitors progress.
  4. Includes populations served in the design, implementation, and evaluation of health information and services.
  5. Meets the needs of populations with a range of health literacy skills while avoiding stigmatization.
  6. Uses health literacy strategies in interpersonal communications and confirms understanding at all points of contact.
  7. Provides easy access to health information and services and navigation assistance.
  8. Designs and distributes print, audiovisual, and social media content that is easy to understand and act on.
  9. Addresses health literacy in high-risk situations, including care transitions and communications about medicines.
  10. Communicates clearly what health plans cover and what individuals will have to pay for services.

Some 77 million people in the United States have difficulty understanding very basic health information, which clouds their ability to follow doctors’ recommendations, and millions more lack the skills necessary to make clear, informed decisions about their own healthcare, said senior author Dean Schillinger, MD, a UCSF professor of medicine, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at SFGH, and director of the Health Communications Program the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations at SFGH. “Depending on how you define it, nearly half the U.S. population has poor health literacy skills. Over the last two decades, we have focused on what patients can do to improve their health literacy,” said Schillinger. “In this report, we looked at the other side of the health literacy coin, and focused on what healthcare systems can do.”

The importance of enhancing health literacy has been demonstrated by many clinical studies over the years, said Schillinger. Health literacy is linked directly to patient wellness. People who can understand their health information tend to make better choices, are able to self-manage their chronic conditions, and have better outcomes than people who do not.

Adults with low health literacy may find it difficult to navigate the healthcare system, and are more likely to have higher rates of medication errors, more ER visits and hospitalizations, gaps in their preventive care, increased likelihood of dying, and poorer health outcomes for their children.

Many health policy organizations have recognized that health literacy is not only important to people, but it can also benefit society because helping patients help themselves is a way to keep healthcare costs down. Successful self-management reduces disease complications, cuts down on unnecessary ER visits and eliminates other wasteful spending.

Click here for more information and for a complete description of the ten attributes.

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