Health plan focuses on healthcare literacy

Staff make sure members understand

Passport Health Plan, a Medicaid HMO with headquarters in Louisville, KY, provides health literacy training for employees so everybody who comes in contact with the members knows the importance of making sure people understand their benefits, when to seek care, and how to follow their treatment plan.

“Health literacy is a science, and providing the training people need to understand it is a good investment. We made a commitment of resources and staff to make sure every employee knows the best practices in health literacy and that our members can understand the materials we give them,” says Lucy Ricketts, director of marketing for the health plan.

It’s not enough to give members materials and make sure they go to the doctor’s office, she adds. “If people can’t understand their benefits, their treatment plan or how to take their medication, we haven’t closed the circle of care. We serve a diverse, multicultural population, and an emphasis on health literacy has been a part of the health plan from the beginning,” she adds.

All of the materials Passport provides to members are on a sixth grade or lower reading level, says Sandy Roland, senior communications coordinator. Roland, who writes all of Passport’s materials and provides training for the staff, has received extensive training in health literacy and communication using plain language at New England’s Summer Health Literacy Institute in Freeport, ME, and the Institute for Healthcare Advancement in LaHabra, CA.

The health plan uses plain language and works with internal graphic designers to ensure that the fonts and layout have maximum readability. “We want people to pick up our literature and, with a moment’s glance, they should be able to read and understand it. A first impression is very important because people will decide very quickly if they want to take the time to read the piece,” she says.

Passport serves a culturally diverse population, and Roland makes sure all of the health plan’s materials and communication with members take into consideration the needs of the non-English speaking members.

When Passport creates written materials, the health plan invites members in the segment of their population that is targeted to participate in focus groups to evaluate the materials. “Focus groups are a critical and powerful tool for making sure we are reaching the intended audience. Health literacy is impacted by a person’s culture as well as education,” Roland says.

For instance, recognizing that diabetes is a significant problem for Passport’s Spanish-speaking and African-American members, the plan held focus groups for each population to make sure they could understand the information from a healthcare literacy and a cultural standpoint. Roland used the input received to change the materials to make them more meaningful to each group. “We learned more than we anticipated. They told us that some of the photos and terminology we used didn’t relate to the Spanish-speaking culture. Our focus group of African-American members gave us similar feedback regarding their preferences,” she says.

When the health plan sends out written materials, it encourages the members to reach out to the care coordinators for help in understanding the message. “The nurses can talk them through their instructions. They have been trained to assess the member’s level of understanding and go over the materials if needed,” she says.

When Roland collaborates with the clinical staff, she encourages them to be basic health educators and minimize the words they use. “We encourage staff to take continuing education classes and attend health literacy conferences,” she says. She uses software that confirms the reading level of materials and offers suggestions of words that are easier to understand and considered more health literacy. “We are constantly searching for the best words to use in order to provide people with the information they need,” she says.