That’s the only way we have any hope of ever truly controlling healthcare costs. According to a University of Connecticut study, poor health literacy increases healthcare spending by $106 billion to $236 billion a year.

The good news is that those who have signed up on one of the exchanges have taken the first step.

But do they really know what they signed up for?  Do they know if they have a $1,000 or a $10,000 deductible? Do they even know what a deductible is?  Do they know if they have a $10, $25 or $50 co-pay every time they see a doctor?  Have they even chosen a doctor?

Employers are increasingly putting more of the cost and control of employees’ care in their own hands but not necessarily giving them the tools they need to do it well.

O'Dwyer's Sept. '14 Beauty/Fashion & Lifestyle PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '14 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine

Call it the next chapter in the American healthcare story. It won’t be an easy one to write either. Health literacy is not something we Americans particularly excel at. This information — medicine, healthcare and insurance — is very complicated and hard to explain and understand, even if you are immersed in it every day.

Doctors are usually willing to talk to you about a symptom or condition or your overall health, but when you start asking them about how much something costs, they would rather not have to talk about it. And up until this point, they haven’t had to. That’s changing for them as well.

We can’t really expect that people will actively participate in their own healthcare if they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. Two decades of research indicate that today’s health information is presented in a way that isn’t usable by most Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly nine out of 10 adults have difficulty using everyday health information. That’s despite an effort launched four years ago by the Obama Administration to improve health literacy.

Here are some tips for organizations that communicate to and with the public about healthcare:

Keep it simple. While this may seem obvious, it’s tough to accomplish.  Healthcare is proud of its jargon and reluctant to give up any of the clever words devised to describe something. So, when you use “deductible,” don’t expect the public to understand what you’re talking about. How about saying what it really is: The amount of money you have to spend out of your own pocket before your insurance will kick in.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. You can’t really explain the terms enough. Repetition allows people to hear over and over again what something means so that they learn it. So, like a political campaign, when you think you’ve defined and explained terms enough, it may just be starting to sink in.  Keep at it.

Know your audience. In the case of healthcare, not all patients or consumers have the same cultural or linguistic background. It’s important to be aware of and use the appropriate languages and understand how to reach a particular ethnic group. Cultural sensitivity is necessary to really be able to reach your audiences.  Healthcare organizations need to have interpreters ready to translate the complex terms.

Develop and post a glossary of terms. It may seem radical, but what if there were an easy to understand glossary of terms posted at key places within a healthcare setting, as well as online, so consumers can find what they need to know easily? It might also help improve the patient-physician encounter so there is a better chance that the information a doctor wants to impart actually is understood.

Encourage questions. Consumers are often intimidated about asking their doctor or another healthcare provider a question. If they are encouraged to do just that, it could spur a conversation that truly helps an individual understand what a doctor is trying to tell a patient and let the patient ask questions until they feel they “get it.”

Write it down. Before seeing a doctor, patients should be encouraged to come to the visit with a list of all medications and supplements they are taking so it can be captured by the doctor and inserted into the electronic medical record. That can help eliminate adverse drug interactions that could otherwise happen.

Make it transparent. The more the public knows and can view online about the cost of a procedure or doctor’s visit, the more informed they can be. As an example, this fall, the health insurers in Massachusetts are required to each have a website and an 800 number that conveys healthcare costs for certain procedures by provider.  The state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation will have its own website that will offer links to the insurers. The hope is that consumers will use the information to make more informed decisions about their care.

Communicate through multiple channels. Not everyone gets their news online or from a newspaper or on a bus ad. People digest information in different ways so ignoring certain channels ensures that you will miss some of the folks you are targeting. Plus, we all know the golden rule that to really influence someone, they have to hear the same information from six different sources.

Make it fun. Fun and healthcare aren’t normally words you think about together.  But to get and keep patients and consumers involved in their care, finding ways online to use games or videos or blogs can really help people know they are not alone and it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Listen. Medical professionals are trained to impart knowledge to patients. But listening — truly listening — to what patients are saying doesn’t always happen. Doctors, in particular, are often rushing between appointments and while they are physically present during an appointment, getting their attention is sometimes a challenge. Maybe we need to create a button that says: “I hear you” to remind providers that they should focus on the patient in front of them. It may only be 15 minutes but to that patient, it’s the most important 15 minutes of the day. 

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Michal Regunberg is Senior Vice President at Solomon McCown & Company.