What’s Up, Doc? Why Health Literacy Matters for Patients

What’s Up, Doc? Why Health Literacy Matters for Patients

Be honest. Has your doctor ever given you instructions to follow that you didn’t completely understand?

Because of your respect for him or her, and maybe a little bit of embarrassment over your lack of understanding, did you neglect to ask follow-up questions that might have helped clear up any miscommunication?

Don’t feel bad. It actually happens more than you’d think, says Cassandra Jackson, program manager for St. John Providence, the largest provider of inpatient care in southeast Michigan.

Jackson is working on a new initiative to boost health literacy in the population that surrounds St. John Providence. Nine of the 12 zip codes surrounding the health system’s largest hospital have the worst health outcomes in the state, according to a 2007 evaluation of the Detroit service area.

In an assessment of 500 local residents, half were found to be at risk for poor health literacy. That can translate to an inability to understand basic health information needed to make good decisions. Because of this, addressing low health literacy is a critical component of eliminating health disparities, Jackson explains.

Jackson gives the example of a patient who thought his hypertension, or high blood pressure, meant he was hyper. Since he didn’t feel hyper, he didn’t take his medication. These misunderstandings can be detrimental to a patient’s health, and costly to the health care system.

Through a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, Jackson and St. John Providence are working to establish a series of four educational seminars that will be presented once per quarter for two years starting this fall. Topics will address the social determinants of health, preventive care, chronic disease management and behavioral health. Experts will be brought in to help participants understand the material, which will be geared toward someone who might have a fourth grade reading level. St. John Providence is partnering with Healthy Neighborhoods Detroit, a local non-profit founded by the health system to recruit 100 participants ages 18 to 64 for each seminar.

“We want them to walk away with a better understanding of societal influences on health, chronic disease management, how to locate health information and strategies for effective communication with practitioners,” Jackson said.

Jackson believes tackling the problem from the patient side will serve to empower and foster understanding. She hopes local physicians will want to attend so they can observe the types of confusion and questions their patients have on a day-to-day basis.

“We really want to give practitioners an opportunity to see things for themselves,” she said.

Pre- and post-assessments will be administered to determine whether or not participants’ health literacy improved as a result of the seminars. If successful, the methodology and developed materials could be shared with other non-profit organizations that serve underprivileged communities.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation supports research and programs to improve the health of Michigan residents. No grant money comes from the premium payments of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan members. To learn more about BCBSM Foundation grant programs, visit bcbsm.com/foundation.

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