AHRQ Views: Blog posts from AHRQ leaders
Organizational Health Literacy More Essential than Ever for Preventing and Managing Chronic Disease
When healthcare consumers are unable find, understand, and use information to inform decisions about their care, the consequences can be dire. Because many healthcare interactions are happening remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is even greater risk for avoidable adverse outcomes due to misunderstanding.
A patient who misunderstands how to take medicines for heart disease may require a hospitalization that was otherwise avoidable. Or, a patient who takes the wrong insulin dose and experiences a drop in blood sugar may fall and experience a serious head injury.
We are reminded each October, when we mark Health Literacy Month, that accurately understanding and using health information is essential for people to avoid adverse events, and to improve their health and well-being. But to help them do that, we need a healthcare system that ensures that patients know how to manage their conditions effectively and make informed choices about their care.
Modern healthcare treatments and regimens frequently require people to make difficult decisions and perform demanding tasks to manage their conditions. Therefore, health literacy is a challenge for all of us, including those who are well-educated.
The complexity of our healthcare system and health information increases the treatment burden on those who are ill or have chronic conditions. It also places barriers to prevention among those who are at risk of developing chronic conditions.
Healthcare organizations can offset these obstacles, however, by using effective health literacy strategies to ensure that the people they serve get the information and services they need to achieve the best possible health outcomes.
AHRQ, by issuing a Special Emphasis Notice, is encouraging researchers to develop new evidence on how best to integrate organizational health literacy strategies into primary and specialty care, as well as how to spread health literacy strategies across ambulatory settings.
Now is the ideal time to accelerate research to improve organizational health literacy to prevent and manage chronic disease. The Department of Health and Human Services has recently launched Healthy People 2030 – a set of goals and objectives to improve the health and well-being of people in the United States over the next decade. Healthy People 2030 has elevated the importance of health literacy by declaring it a foundational principle and overarching goal, and by adopting two definitions that together constitute health literacy.
Personal Health Literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
Organizational Health Literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
AHRQ has long advocated that healthcare organizations be health literate. AHRQ’s many tools help providers implement organizational health literacy strategies, such as training staff and evaluating their health literacy skills; instituting policies and processes to implement evidence-based approaches; adopting health literacy universal precautions that assume everyone is at risk of misunderstanding; and systematically assessing written materials.
Health literate organizations simplify their communications – and verify comprehension with all parties. They recognize that even people who are well-educated face challenges in understanding and navigating the healthcare system, especially when they are sick, tired, or worried. Having a mental health condition can compound this challenge. Health literate organizations "go the extra mile" for individuals who have the greatest difficulty with understanding or getting the services they need.
As part of the Agency’s efforts to optimize individual and population health outcomes, and address the social determinants of health, AHRQ seeks research proposals that address the needs of disadvantaged individuals, including those with limited health literacy. We encourage grant applications that examine the impacts of organizational health literacy strategies on:
- reducing racial, ethnic, language, and health literacy disparities.
- serving people who receive care from safety-net providers.
- meeting the needs of people with multiple chronic conditions.
AHRQ is committed to helping healthcare systems and providers deliver whole-person, person-centered care. Central to that objective is supporting efforts to make sure healthcare information is clearly communicated, and easily understood and acted upon.
We hope that researchers see Health Literacy Month as an opportune time to respond to AHRQ’s call to learn more about how organizational health literacy strategies can be used in ambulatory settings to prevent and manage chronic conditions.
Cindy Brach is a senior healthcare researcher in AHRQ’s Center for Evidence and Practice Improvement. Arlene S. Bierman is director of the Center for Evidence and Practice Improvement.