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Speaking the Language of Health

There are many things healthcare companies that can do to mitigate disparities and close the great communication divide.

By Russell Bennett, VP, Latino Health Solutions, UnitedHealth


Achieving consistent quality of care regardless of a person's race or ethnicity remains an elusive but critical goal. Improving health literacy – the ability to use and understand health information – is a central part of the solution.

According to an August 2013 report in Health Affairs, "In the United States, life expectancy and other health status measures vary dramatically depending on factors, such as race, gender, educational attainment, and ZIP code, that should not make a difference."

These unsettling trends are experienced especially acutely among America's Hispanic communities. Some sobering statistics:

• Mexican-American males age 20 or under had the highest prevalence of obesity, as compared to non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks.
• Hispanic populations continue to experience disproportionate rates of HIV/AIDS.
• Hispanics have lower rates of influenza vaccination when compared to other demographics.
• Hispanics had higher rates of being uninsured, compared with other racial and ethnic groups.

One of the solutions to eliminating these disparities is more effective communication about health care and health care treatment options. It is all the more important given the nearly 16 million minority individuals expected to enter the health care system as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

In October we observed Health Literacy Month, which left us with an open-ended opportunity to examine how a greater understanding of the language of health can help people enhance their well-being. More than 77 million adults in the United States experience what is known as "low health literacy," which – especially among minorities – often leads to more frequent medical errors and avoidable hospitalizations, longer hospital stays, and over- and under-utilization of medical procedures.

For example, 65 percent of Spanish-speaking adults in the United States experience some limitation understanding and using health communications, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This is an issue, however, that affects all racial and ethnic groups. A University of Connecticut School of Business Study estimates the cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy in the range of $106 billion to $238 billion annually.

There are many things health care companies can do to help mitigate these disparities and close the great communication divide. For example, culturally sensitive health resources and wellness tools, such as UnitedHealthcare's Generations of Wellness – created to help African-American communities live healthier – offer lifestyle and wellness tips that can help improve health outcomes. UnitedHealth Group's Just Plain Clear English-Spanish Glossary provides easier-to-understand, Spanish-translated definitions of some 2,200 insurance, dental, medical and legal terms.

Also, we need to encourage young minority students to pursue careers in health care to increase the number of multicultural health care professionals. For example, United Health Foundation recently awarded $2 million in scholarships to 175 students to help increase diversity in the health care workforce. A number of universities and medical schools offer cultural competency training work to improve disparities in the health care fields. The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health also offer a range of cultural competency tools.

Addressing health disparities is a two-way street, one that will entail new, tailored tools and educational services that boost health literacy; greater cultural competence among health care professionals; and diverse communities taking a more active role in their own health. Working together during a transformative era in health care, we can ensure that the examination room of tomorrow is truly colorblind.


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