New Tool Available for Health Care Companies to Assess their Organizations' Health Literacy Programs

For Immediate Release
March 15, 2010

Susan Pisano
(202) 778-3245

ATLANTA, GA --  A new tool is now publicly available for health care companies to assess their organizations’ approaches to ensuring that communication with patients promotes consumer engagement, and to advance their health literacy programs.  Developed by Emory University researcher and highly respected health literacy expert Dr. Julie Gazmararian, the tool addresses the work of all departments and professionals in health plans that touch consumers via the written word, the spoken word, or the world-wide web.  It includes five sections that assess printed information for members, web navigation, member services/verbal communication, forms, and nurse call lines.  It evaluates policies, procedures, and training of professionals in clear health communication.

The new tool was developed through a year-long process with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in consultation with hundreds of professionals at health plans across the country, including those who serve on the AHIP Health Literacy Task Force and those who take part in the association’s work in disparities in health and cultural competency.  It was reviewed by medical professionals, including medical directors, nurses, and nurse educators, as well as other professionals who are part of the industry’s work in quality improvement and member communications.

“While the role of individual clinicians communicating with patients in office and hospital settings has long been recognized, the role of organizations in health literacy is just now gaining prominence, and there has been little to assist them as they build company-wide programs,” said Dr. Julie Gazmararian, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor Emory University.

Health literacy, while still a relatively new endeavor within health care, is rapidly gaining momentum in an era when the engagement of consumers in their own health is recognized as a fundamental prerequisite for improvements in the health of our population.  Health literacy looks at an individual’s ability to read, understand, and act on medical information and instructions.  It is the result of an interaction between the individual, with his or her unique communication skills and deficits, and the health care system and its style of communication.

Research clearly shows that patients who understand and can carry out the instructions provided to them do better on many dimensions, including managing chronic disease, fewer admissions to emergency rooms and hospitals, and overall health status.

“Achieving the major goals for our health care system, including improved quality and better health status for our nation’s population, requires us to engage patients in their own health with clear, actionable information, a goal the Institute of Medicine has recognized we are far from reaching.  The new assessment developed by Dr. Gazmararian and AHIP provides a tool for our community to help close the nation’s information gap, and I commend it to my colleagues at health plans around the country for their use,” said George Isham, MD, Medical Director and Chief Health Officer with HealthPartners, AHIP Board Member and chair of the IOM Roundtable on health literacy.

Previous work focused on the role of individuals in health literacy but the new tool addresses an area – the organization – that is gaining increasing attention for the role that organizations play in health literacy.  Dr. Matthew Wynia of the American Medical Association directs the Ethical Force program, which is a multi-stakeholder program measuring the communication climate in health care organizations.  According to Dr. Wynia, “This new tool for health plans is a great step forward.  To ensure effective communication in health care it’s appropriate to focus on one-to-one interactions – but we also need tools like this, which recognize that clinical interactions take place in organizations, each with its own culture, infrastructure and priorities that can make good communications much easier or harder.”

The tool was pilot tested in two phases by a total of 18 health plans.  All participate in the AHIP Health Literacy Task Force, chaired by Jill Griffiths, Vice President, Thought Leadership Clinical and Provider Relations, Aetna.  National, regional, and local plans were part of the pilot testing that included plans serving commercial members, Medicare beneficiaries, and Medicaid beneficiaries.  Plans that participated in the pilots provided feedback on the ease of use and relevance of the tool, which was revised slightly after the first phase of testing, and received plan specific feedback on their responses to it.  Plans have indicated that they will use the tool to advance their work in health literacy.

Download the tool. 

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, we work with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years we’ve brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those we serve. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, we expect to make a difference in your lifetime.

About the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center

The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has $2.3 billion in operating expenses, 18,000 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,500 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta. Learn more about Emory’s health sciences: - @emoryhealthsci (Twitter) -

Providing Health Benefits for Over 200 Million Americans.