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Decreasing Health Disparities Through Patient Education

An older man is looking over the chat with the doctor, smiling.

Education is one of the most important aspects of patient care. Every time a patient interacts with a clinic or a provider, there is an opportunity to provide patient education.

A typical healthcare appointment involves a provider spending time with their patient discussing diagnosis and treatment, then giving the patient the opportunity to ask questions about their condition or their treatment. When done right, proper patient education improves care outcomes and reduces the cost of care.

But not all patients can participate in their treatment this way because not all patients can fully understand their treatment to begin with.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions." Patients with lower levels of health literacy may have trouble comprehending important health-related materials. These challenges are even bigger for patients with limited-English proficiency (LEP). Providers and healthcare facilities can help bridge this gap by providing better patient education materials and making sure everything is printed or available in multiple languages based on your patient population.

Re-examining Patient Education

When a patient seeks medical care, they need information that is easy to understand. Most patients are unfamiliar with complex medical terms (even English speakers) and many patients don't have an understanding of the human body from a medical standpoint. When they face a complicated diagnosis or a serious illness, patients need to be able to make decisions about which treatment options are best for them.

Physicians and care providers often discuss the available options in terms of risks and benefits. But patients who don't fully understand their diagnosis or their treatment choices will have a hard time weighing those risks and benefits. They may choose more costly care or treatments with a lower chance of success or may rely on providers to make care decisions instead of being involved in the process.

Good patient education is also essential for patients managing conditions and diseases outside of a hospital or physician's office, including those: 

  • With chronic health conditions
  • Discharged from the hospital with home care instructions
  • Who have a complex diagnosis that requires self-care

Low health literacy and lack of patient education increase the chance that someone will need emergency care. It also increases the chance of hospital readmission within 30 days of discharge and leads to higher transitional care costs after discharge. These risks are even higher for LEP patients since language can be yet another barrier to understanding their care.

Right now, healthcare payers, providers, and organizations are focused on reducing costs and improving health outcomes. Better patient education can achieve both.

Crunching the Numbers

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) places a high priority on patient education to reduce costs and improve care quality, and for good reasons.

  • Approximately 93 million American adults (36%) have low health literacy, which is defined as comprehension at or below a 5th-grade level.
  • Only 12% of U.S. adults are considered proficient in health literacy, capable of navigating a complex medical system and fully participating in managing their health.
  • Health costs are four times higher for someone with low health literacy than for someone with high health literacy.
  • Low health literacy leads to 6% more hospital visits and hospital stays that are two days longer, on average.
  • Low health literacy costs the U.S. economy $236 billion a year in lost wages, medical errors, and higher illness and disability.

Low health literacy and lack of adequate patient education have a major impact on the ability of patients to manage chronic conditions. This costs the healthcare system a lot of money every year:

  • About $9 out of $10 spent on healthcare in the U.S. goes toward treating chronic health conditions and mental health
  • Chronic disease accounts for 7 out of 10 deaths in the U.S.
  • Unnecessary hospital readmissions cost the CMS more than $17 billion a year

For LEP patients, patient safety is an even bigger issue. When patients don't have access to education and treatment materials in their native language, they are at a higher risk of:

  • Medication errors
  • Emergency room visits
  • Inadequate self-care for chronic disease or mental health disease management
  • Longer hospital stays
  • Death

Making Patient Education Accessible (to Everyone)

The only way to combat these risks is to improve patient education and make information available in a way that people can understand. Hospital systems and providers can do this by:

  • Reviewing all your patient education materials — including your website — and revising the information, so it's at or below a 6th-grade reading level
  • Using a language support partner with medically qualified interpreters available on-demand with professionals proficient in hundreds of languages
  • Translating patient education materials into the top 15 languages that patients speak in your catchment area (this is legally required by Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act)
  • Translating educational videos into other languages and providing captions
  • Engaging a language services partner in transcreation for your website
  • Continually evaluating the effectiveness of your language support services

Many care facilities today are aware of the importance of patient education. They take steps to ensure patients have access to the information they need. But where they fall short is extending the same services to LEP patients. To be truly accessible, patient education must be available in the languages your patients understand.

Assessing Language Access Needs Through Patient Journey Mapping

If you're not sure where to begin, patient journey mapping is one of the best ways to identify gaps in services for your LEP patients. An effective patient journey map includes all your touchpoints — before, during, and after a visit — to visualize the care experience from the patient's point of view. That includes:

  • Pre-visit: Scheduling, transportation, and parking
  • During the visit: Arrival, check-in, rooming, exam, and checkout
  • Post-visit: Billing, payment, and care follow up
  • Virtual visits: Scheduling, check-in, encounters, and follow-up specific to virtual care

Organizations that take the time to create a patient journey map and develop a language access plan specifically for patients with limited-English proficiency will be better prepared with educational tools and materials to improve the patient experience. It will also improve communication between patients and providers. Staff can have a better idea of when they will need to engage with a language support service to ensure accessible and adequate patient education.

Improve LEP Patient Education with the Right Language Services Partner

Better patient education is critical to improving care and lowering costs. It also helps remove silos in care and create a more seamless patient experience before, during, and after care. Healthcare organizations must be prepared to address gaps in patient education for every patient.

Find out how GLOBO can help you provide the same great level of care and service to your LEP patients today.

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