Health Articles

The Cost of Low Health Literacy in Your Organization

Low health literacy is endemic and comes at great cost to individuals and employers. Here’s how to understand and improve employee health literacy for financial savings and increased productivity.

What is Health Literacy?

Healthy literacy is the degree to which somebody can access and understand basic information about their health and health-related services available and make appropriate health decisions.

Following are examples:

  • Knowing what’s covered under one’s health plan
  • Understanding the difference between premiums, co-pays/co-insurance, and deductibles
  • Comparing prescription drug options, reading drug labels
  • Navigating the local health system
  • Making appointments with appropriate health care professionals
  • Completing paperwork
  • Analyzing risks and benefits of treatments

Current State of Health Literacy

The tasks above are daunting for some. For example, immigrants with English as a second language may struggle navigating health systems. Seniors may struggle with technology and the tools available.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nine out of 10 adults lack the skills to manage their health and prevent disease. This report reveals low health literacy costs the U.S. economy $106-$238 billion annually.

In Canada, reports indicate 60% of adults (88% of seniors) aren’t health literate. This is exacerbated by changes and complications with provincial health care systems and low supply of family doctors, relegating people to using walk-in clinics which don’t provide comprehensive or holistic health care assistance.


42% of adults with low health literacy are in poor health, directly linking them to higher hospitalization rates, lower use of preventative services, and greater use of services to treat complications of disease rather than prevent complications to begin with. All this results in higher health care costs.

Specifically, low health literacy results in the following problems, according to National Institutes of Health:

  • Higher chance of taking medications incorrectly
  • Higher incidence and poorer control of chronic conditions
  • Preventable emergency room visits/hospitalizations, and longer stays

Consequences for Organizations

Employees with low health literacy require time off for medical appointments that may not even be effective. Using unnecessary medical services and failing to manage chronic conditions increases health costs for everyone.

In addition, not understanding how lifestyle decisions (like diet and exercise) affect health outcomes increases absenteeism from illness.

Employees may also have difficulty completing claims paperwork and understanding benefits, contributing to reduced productivity and increased medical costs.

The U.S. Department of Health reports low health literacy translates into higher costs of drug/medical/disability claims, lower productivity, and higher absenteeism.

Improving Health Literacy

Health literacy starts in the workplace. Suggestions include:

  • Schedule “lunch and learn” seminars explaining common health terms and invite local doctors/public health experts to discuss specific topics.
  • Post pictures and infographics (like these from WHO) in common areas.
  • Detailed explanations of benefits (with multiple translations), breaking down medical jargon
  • Designate a staff member (or external support person) to help employees navigate benefits.

Repetition is key! Annual benefits enrolment presentations may not be enough for employees to understand the amazing benefits your company offers. Brief messages throughout the year are more effective.

How Novus Health Can Help

The Health Navigation platform by Novus Health is designed to increase employee health literacy and decrease costs. They do so with the following services:

  • Online member portal (24-7)
  • Toll-free number to a Health Information Specialist (who talks in plain language!)
  • Personalized enrolment information packages
  • Help navigating the health care system
  • Physician/health care provider database
  • Health condition and drug library
  • Natural product and travel health library
  • Caregiving support tools
  • Information on mental health issues (including where to go for diagnosis and treatment)

For more health insight, visit Novus Health!

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