The New Health Literacy

Transparency goes into Overdrive

We are seeing an inexorable rise in what is now called “Health Literacy”.  In my February newsletter, I am addressing the issues of health literacy and what hospitals and physicians need to do to prosper in this new environment.  Health literacy is not simply patient education, but rather as defined by Healthy People (HHS, 2010) as the “degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”  There is a huge opportunity to improve literacy in this country.  National and local efforts are currently underway to facilitate this process.

This need for literacy is driven by several economic and social factors, some of which include the increase in medical knowledge available to the patient, the rise in high deductibles, and frankly the economic cost of low literacy.

Health literacy has several components, including the patients’ knowledge of their own medical situations, the ability to navigate the complicated health care environment, the increasing need to take individual responsibility for health, and the incorporation of the patient into the health care team.

On the one hand, health care professionals should welcome this “empowered” patient.  On the other hand, the addition of the patient to the health care team, although very appropriate and frankly overdue, is going to upset some apple carts regarding the status quo of the health care system.  There is no doubt that this increased literacy is a good thing.  But as literacy grows, there will be consequences to the present health care system.  My newsletter addresses four of these.  Here is one:

Increasing health literacy will move the need for transparency of data even faster.   I have written before about the need for hospitals and physicians to embrace transparency.  As patients become more literate and responsible for their health, both from a medical and financial perspective, this will further increase the consumer demand to have actionable data about outcomes, patient experience and cost.  As patients become more involved in medical decision-making, they will need to have more information at hand to make the decision.  The old way of “whatever the doctor wants” will now become a matter of mutual discussion.

I have said before that transparency may well become the way to do business in health care and as hospitals and physicians we need to be able to manage this process.   Here are my three rules of public data:


  1. The data is significant, whether is it significant or not (the public doesn’t know the difference)
  2. A low score almost always points to an actionable process improvement
  3. The best improvement in performance comes from having NO data to having ANY data

We must embrace these three rules in order to improve our performance.  Trustees and physicians need to learn how to better work with the transparency as THE way of doing business.  As I have talked about in my presentation, “Transparency, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, transparency has greatly improved clinical outcomes and experience.  It should do the same with cost-efficiency and price, but it must be better understood and managed by health care professionals to be most effective.  Price transparency will become more common as patients have to pay more out of pocket.  However, successful hospitals and physicians will use this process to continually improve the Value of their services– outcomes, experience and price.

There are many other consequences we will encounter from the more “empowered” and literate patient.  But one of the biggest will be putting the already rapid process of transparency onto “Overdrive”.  We need to prepare for this and let the newly literate patient help us provide better medical care for everyone.

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