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It’s Campaign Season: Time for Health Literacy Damage Control

Health Literacy

Earlier this year, in reaction to the measles outbreak that spread out from California to impact 14 other states, a nearly-Shakespearean debate broke out: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, that is the question. Naturally, healthcare experts leapt into action to debunk—once and for all, they hoped—many of the myths that led to the anti-vax movement. But the photo ops proved too tempting, so other voices, those of politicians and celebrities, joined the debate. The result?  Health literacy lost ground as real experts and facts were crowded out by celebrity sound bites. Health literacy isn’t just about recognizing and understanding medical terms, but also involves the comprehension of this information.  Is it any wonder that the start of campaign season makes health literacy advocates nervous? Hospitals need to start considering how to develop effective patient engagement strategies to combat misinformation and ensure patients are putting their trust in reliable sources.

Facing the Issue of Health Literacy Head-On

As the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial response to the politicians who weighed in on the vaccination debate, these politicians backtracked on their original comments and said their own children had been vaccinated, but by then the damage was done. Presidential campaigns can muddy the waters when it comes to what the public knows and believes about health issues, and this can be problematic for healthcare providers—especially in today’s consumer-driven healthcare environment.

Let’s be honest—hospitals and other healthcare providers lack the visibility that celebrities and politicians have. Dr. Oz enjoys a daily time slot and more “cures” than many clinicians recognize. During campaign season, politicians are nearly inescapable between advertisements and news coverage, and regardless of party affiliation, they are invested in their own point of view.

In the case of anti-vax sentiment, for example, the Huffington Post notes that “poorly informed celebrities and politicians have also played a disproportionate role in fear mongering and spreading misinformation about vaccines.” The article also points out that the “endemic problem of ‘false balance’ in the media” results in ill-informed vaccine opponents and health experts get equal billing. 

Lacking more readily available sources, healthcare consumers can end up confused by the messages being delivered. As a result, health literacy takes a tumble. Research has shown that individuals with lower health literacy have higher rates of hospitalization, worse overall health and higher mortality rates. Do you have patient engagement strategies to address health literacy effectively?

What Does an Effective Health Literacy Program Look Like?

In an article called, “Why we’re not ‘Feeling’ Health Literacy,” Huffington Post lays out another challenge to consider. In addition to the misinformation—past, present and future—that interferes with health literacy, it’s clear that access to health information alone doesn’t result in more health-literate consumers. The article argues that there’s a disconnect between logic and emotion. Healthcare consumers know that a healthy lifestyle embraces good diet and exercise, but they struggle with sacrificing favorite foods or making time for work-outs. Similarly, they recognize the need for prescribed medications, but are frustrated by cost or side effects. And does anyone look forward to scheduling medical appointments? Despite adequate health literacy, a considerable number of healthcare consumers fail to adhere to wellness regimens.  And that’s not the only issue. According to several studies of primary care patients, it is those consumers who trust their doctors who are more likely to comply with recommended treatment plans.

Clearly, health literacy has more dimensions than strictly providing information. You need to identify ways to engage with patients in a meaningful way so they feel as comfortable with taking advice from your healthcare organization as they do from their favorite celebrity or politician. Psychographic segmentation can help. The proprietary c2b solutions psychographic segmentation model identifies five distinct segments based on deep-seated attitudes and beliefs among healthcare consumers to allow you to develop more effective health literacy programs. These insights can help you define unique approaches to the messages you craft and where you distribute information to connect with the broadest swath of healthcare consumers. Once you have the right messages, in the right places, you’ll be better positioned to realize a real return on engagement for your health literacy initiatives.

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change

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