Commentary: Imagine traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language. Picture trying to find the right train to take you to your destination and not being able to read the signs at the station or ask anyone for directions. For many Americans, this is similar to their experience interacting with the healthcare system.

In the United States, more than 90 million adults have low health literacy, or difficulty understanding and using their health information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines health literacy as the degree to which one has the ability to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services in order to make appropriate health decisions. Low rates of healthcare literacy are linked to poor outcomes, including higher rates of re-hospitalization and lower adherence to medical regimens.

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Health literacy involves more than being able to read; it also includes basic math – such as figuring out medication dosages or calculating weight – and the ability to follow written and spoken directions, such as how often to take a medication. It also involves memory and the ability to make complex decisions.

As the health system has evolved in the last few years, Americans are bearing greater responsibility than ever for their personal and family health decisions. One’s ability to select an appropriate health plan is paramount to meeting their specific needs, yet four in 10 uninsured people do not know basic health insurance terms. Only about one in 10, at best, can effectively manage their healthcare.

Low health literacy is costing the U.S. health system about $238 billion each year, money that could be used much more effectively to modernize and improve the healthcare system for everyone.

Without information that makes sense to them, people often have difficulty accessing safe, high-quality, cost-effective health care.

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At UnitedHealth Group, we’re taking action to improve health literacy nationwide. We’ve created tools and programs to help consumers from every stage of life better understand their health, navigate their health benefits and adhere to treatments prescribed by their care providers.

We focus on using tools to help empower consumers, employers and payers to better understand health information. These include UnitedHealth Group’s Just Plain Clear English-Spanish Glossary. Taking into account lower health literacy among the Hispanic population in the United States, the online glossary makes key health terms easier to understand for both English- and Spanish-speaking people. 

Consumers and healthcare professionals should challenge themselves to think about and improve their own health literacy. Only by working together to improve how we communicate about health will Americans be empowered to make better, more informed decisions that can improve their health and well-being. 

Steven Rush is director of the health literacy innovations program at UnitedHealth Group. 

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