Equity and Health Literacy: Examining the Link, Exploring Solutions

From left to right: Robert Logan, Ph.D, Michael Paasche-Orlow, M.D, Winston F. Wong, M.D., M.S, and Michael Villaire, MSLM (Moderator)

From left to right: Robert Logan, Ph.D, Michael Paasche-Orlow, M.D, Winston F. Wong, M.D., M.S, and Michael Villaire, MSLM (Moderator)

Michael Villaire, MSLM (Moderator), Institute for Healthcare Advancement; Michael Paasche-Orlow, M.D., Boston University; Robert Logan, Ph.D, National Library of Medicine; Winston F. Wong, M.D., M.S,, Kaiser Permanente

Each renowned in their fields, Dr. Michael Paasche-Orlow, Dr. Robert Logan and Dr. Winston F. Wong discussed their perspectives of how health disparities, social determinants of health, and social disparities influence health literacy and overall health outcomes of not only individuals, but communities as well. Health equity is a state that we all want to reach. In order to achieve this vision, health literacy, research and policy elements must be incorporated into intervention strategies.

Health literacy plays a role in the burden of disease and can be used as a tool in prevention. The more competent an organization is in health literacy best practices, the better their outcomes will be. However, health literacy strategies need to go beyond “do you understand” to “what is important to you” as an individual or community. This shift allows us to invest in the influencers that have the capacity to result in better outcomes.

Dr. Paasche-Orlow shared some of his research and provided evidence from a study that initially seemed to identify a racial health disparity in patient outcomes, but upon further investigation found the difference to be attributable to a disparity in health literacy. In this instance and in other areas of his work, a clear link between health literacy and health equity could be drawn. Not all the experts agreed on the directionality of this link, but did support the strong connection between health literacy and health equity.

Incorporating health literacy principles can help eliminate health disparities, and improve how we navigate and communicate within our complex healthcare system.  Additional tools can be used to improve access, knowledge and an understanding of health literacy and health equity interventions. The development of an electronic health literacy tool shed was suggested. More research is still needed on health literacy and health equity, but the field is on the right path and further investigation can shed light on this connection and the root causes of health disparities.