Why Health Literacy Is Important For Diverse Communities

by Nikolas Wong

April 12, 2018

The inability to understand and use health information can put people’s health at risk. Without adequate literacy skills, America’s most vulnerable populations are more likely to have trouble accessing health services or making the most of their health insurance.

This is a crucial issue health insurance providers hope to overcome as U.S. populations become more diverse.

Low health literacy is an escalating source of health disparities among minorities. Of the nearly 77 million Americans who struggle with health-related reading tasks, 65 percent are minorities, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Similarly, a UConn study found one in five people with private health insurance coverage didn’t understand the word “premium.” It also found that minorities showed greater difficulty understanding and using their health insurance benefits, which worsened when they had limited education and English proficiency.

Health insurance providers want the people and families they serve to understand their health benefits so they can make the best decisions about their care. Better, simpler communication with patients can foster access to necessary health services that help keep communities healthy.

As diversity changes, the demographic landscape of beneficiaries will also change. Cultural competence—the ability to provide care for individuals with different social, cultural, and linguistic needs—is essential to keep Americans healthy and insured. Some health insurance providers have already pushed for greater cultural competence to overcome low literacy. Here’s how:

  • AmeriHealth Caritas developed the first Health Literacy and Plain Language Resource Guide: The guide offers health care providers and educators resources to improve health communications with patients with different cultural and linguistic needs. It includes toolkits, suggested communication standards, books, and much more.
  • Anthem promotes Culturally, and Linguistically Appropriate Services: These tools help doctors and hospital staff improve cultural competence and health literacy. Health professionals can learn how to communicate with individuals with different cultural backgrounds and literacy levels.
  • Cigna partners with Amazon Alexa to improve health literacy: Responding to the 2017 health insurance literacy study, Cigna developed a new application, Answers by Cigna, to educate users and provide information on 150 commonly asked health care questions.

Low literacy deters minorities from being insured and limits access to medical care. As diversity among Americans continues to grow, so does the need to improve health literacy. Health insurance providers are working hard to overcome the barriers that affect low literacy and are committed to greater cultural competence.