A health literate health care organization is one that makes it easy for people to navigate, understand, and use information and services to take care of their health. This chapter explores the journey that a growing number of organizations are taking to become health literate. Health literacy improvement has increasingly been viewed as a systems issue, one that moves beyond siloed efforts by recognizing that action is required on multiple levels. To help operationalize the shift to a systems perspective, members of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy defined ten attributes of health literate health care organizations.
External factors, such as payment reform in the U.S., have buoyed health literacy as an organizational priority. Health care organizations often begin their journey to become health literate by conducting health literacy organizational assessments, focusing on written and spoken communication, and addressing difficulties in navigating facilities and complex systems. As organizations' efforts mature, health literacy quality improvement efforts give way to transformational activities. These include: the highest levels of the organization embracing health literacy, making strategic plans for initiating and spreading health literate practices, establishing a health literacy workforce and supporting structures, raising health literacy awareness and training staff system-wide, expanding patient and family input, establishing policies, leveraging information technology, monitoring policy compliance, addressing population health, and shifting the culture of the organization.
The penultimate section of this chapter highlights the experiences of three organizations that have explicitly set a goal to become health literate: Carolinas Healthcare System (CHS), Intermountain Healthcare, and Northwell Health. These organizations are pioneers that approached health literacy in a systematic fashion, each exemplifying different routes an organization can take to become health literate. CHS provides an example of how, even when the most senior leadership drives the organization to become health literate, continued progress requires constant reinvigoration. At Intermountain Healthcare, the push to become a health literate organization was the natural consequence of organizational adoption of a model of shared accountability that necessitated patient engagement for its success. Northwell Health, on the other hand, provides a model of how a persistent champion can elevate health literacy to become a system priority and how system-wide policies and procedures can advance effective communication across language differences, health literacy, and cultures.
The profiles of the three systems make clear that the opportunities for health literacy improvement are vast. Success depends on the presence of a perfect storm of conditions conducive to transformational change. This chapter ends with lessons learned from the experiences of health literacy pioneers that may be useful to organizations embarking on the journey. The journey is long, and there are bumps along the road. Nonetheless, discernable progress has been made. While committed to transformation, organizations seeking to be health literate recognize that it is not a destination you can ever reach. A health literate organization is constantly striving, always knowing that further improvement can be made.