UnitedHealth: Investing in health literacy could save billions

doctor sitting at desk consulting with patient
UnitedHealth Group released a new study examining the possible savings in investing in health literacy. (DMEPhotography/GettyImages)

Improving members' health literacy could lead to billions in savings, according to a new report from UnitedHealth Group.

UnitedHealth researchers reviewed data from a number of sources including the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and found that seniors living in counties with the highest health literacy saw better outcomes.

In the highest-performing counties, between 15% and 27% of residents are projected to have poor health literacy, compared to between 36% and 59% of people living in the lowest-performing areas.

Seniors living in these regions with higher health literacy got 31% more flu vaccinations and saw 26% fewer avoidable hospitalizations and 18% fewer emergency department visits. In addition, seniors in regions with high health literacy saw 9% fewer hospital admissions and had 13% lower healthcare costs per beneficiary, according to the report.

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UHG estimates that if a significant focus was put on improving health literacy, Medicare could save $25.4 billion each year and could avoid 993,000 hospital visits. Broken down further, the program could avoid 820,000 ED visits, 93,000 admissions, and 80,000 readmissions, according to the report.

"Investing in practices and systems that improve health literacy will benefit seniors and adults in all age groups," the researchers wrote.

UnitedHealth also estimates that investment in health literacy could lead an additional 670,000 Medicare beneficiaries to get a flu shot each year, a notable bump in a population that's especially vulnerable to the seasonal flu.

The researchers offer several ways that both the public and private sectors can invest in improving patients' health literacy, such as ensuring health professionals including doctors are speaking with patients in a way that's clear and they can understand.

They also suggest making consumer-facing communication available in multiple languages so they can access it more effectively and provide such materials only after they've proven to be accurate and actionable, according to the report.