Opinion: Simple language key to improving health literacy and outcomes

By Abraham Morales

Abraham Morales

Abraham Morales

For good reason, improving health literacy is becoming a more relevant and pressing matter at both local and national levels. As states, including Colorado, seek to enroll more people in health insurance coverage, they must communicate with individuals who have little to no understanding of terms and concepts that many in the health industry take for granted.

Recently, the Urban Institute published a report on health insurance literacy suggesting the need for more targeted educational and outreach programs. In particular, the report identified Latinos and those of low socioeconomic status as having low levels of literacy when it comes to insurance terminology.

According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nine out of 10 adults in the country “have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in health care facilities, retail outlets, media and communities.”

It’s not simply about understanding. It’s about health.

Limited health literacy, says HHS, is associated with poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs, and affects people’s ability to search for and use health information and adopt healthy behaviors.

The latter was one of the challenges states recently faced when trying to enroll new customers – many of whom had never before shopped for or had health insurance – in their new health insurance marketplaces. Limited health literacy – combined with the lack of a comprehensive outreach strategy towards Latinos – became a real issue during the enrollment process, and is likely to continue to be a problem, as these NPR and National Journal stories report.

The ability to search for and use health information seems like something quite basic that we all should be able to do. But if 90 percent of the U.S. population is having trouble understanding basic and ubiquitous terminology, we are talking about a fundamental problem that affects everyone. Low consumer understanding of economic concepts surely compounded the housing mortgage crisis, which had far-reaching impacts. It makes sense then that the health system should undergo a fundamental shift toward using language and concepts that all consumers can understand.

For some Latinos, health literacy is an even more complex challenge. English proficiency is one issue, while the novelty and complexity of an unfamiliar health care system is another. Many Hispanics are relative newcomers to our state and might come from countries with different health care structures, and Spanish-dominant Hispanics have the lowest levels of education and income of all groups in Colorado.

The good news is the conversation has started, and that is always a good first step.

However, a substantial challenge remains. Health insurers, providers and public health entities must take a step back and examine their nomenclature. Whether they’re promoting insurance coverage, interacting with patients or providing follow-up care instructions to families, they need to meet Coloradans where they are in terms of health literacy. That will be a good step toward making us all healthier.

Abraham Morales leads the Hispanic Insights department at SE2, a Colorado-based mass communications firm focused on public issues. He can be reached at [email protected]


Opinions expressed in Health News Colorado represent the view of individual authors.


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