UPMC and Highmark agree:

Our community needs more and better health information

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In 2010, the Institute for Politics at the University of Pittsburgh convened a group of more than 60 organizations, including the Allegheny Medical Society, the FISA Foundation, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, UPMC, the Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvanian, the Jewish Family & Children's Center and Mercy Behavioral Health to discuss the state of health literacy in Western Pennsylvania. This led to the creation of the Regional Health Literacy Coalition.

Health literacy is the extent to which individuals can understand and access basic health information about their conditions, treatments, providers and services to make appropriate health decisions.

At a recent coalition symposium, we shared best practices and underscored the widespread impact of patients' failure to understand basic health information. Everyone could benefit if health care providers and insurers used simple words and short sentences that everyone can immediately understand.

Someone inquired, "Isn't health literacy just an issue for minorities and individuals with low incomes?"

The answer: Health literacy is an important public health issue that affects everyone on some level. A recent coalition survey made clear that low health literacy disproportionately affects certain demographic groups, such as older adults, minorities and people with poor health and disabilities, but many were surprised that it also affects young people of all demographic backgrounds.

Many people have difficulty absorbing the medical terms and instructions that are crammed into the few precious minutes we have with our health care providers. If you've accompanied parents or grandparents to a doctor's appointment, you may have seen how overwhelming it can be for some older adults to understand and remember information, instructions and prescription schedules for multiple conditions.

They aren't alone. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that "nearly nine out of 10 adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease." Imagine the additional challenges faced by those with low health literacy, people who speak English as a second language and people who have limited education.

The Regional Health Literacy Coalition includes many organizations, including both UPMC and Highmark, but we all serve the same community. Together, we are developing a best-practice health-literacy model. Join us as we help our region develop a healthy understanding.

To learn more, visit the coalition website at www.ahealthyunderstanding.org or the health literacy website of the Institute of Politics at iop.pitt.edu/healthliteracy.

Candi Castleberry-Singleton is chief inclusion and diversity officer for UPMC. Yvonne Cook is vice president of community and health initiatives for Highmark. They co-chair the Regional Health Literacy Coalition.

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