Patients – particularly minorities and those on Medicare – are not actively making decisions about their treatments and procedures because doctor-patient communication is poor, according to a study presented Thursday to MedPAC, the Congressional advisory committee on Medicare.
The result is a greater expense for Medicare and a lack of empowerment among patients.
"Once patients understand the risks and benefits of expensive procedures, they tend to opt for more conservative treatment options," said Rita Redberg, a MedPAC member and professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
It's the reason physicians and hospitals are resisting training programs that would teach care providers to include patients in the decision-making process, Redberg said, because they lose money when patients choose less-costly options.
The deliberations of the 17 MedPAC members will be presented as recommendations to Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Improving health literacy, or the ability of patients to understand their health care and make informed decisions, is a stated priority for HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
It's a priority that could come with significant financial implications for the United States. In 2007, a team of researchers estimated that low health literacy costs the U.S. between $106 and $236 billion annually. A number of factors account for those costs, including a patient's inability to find the best provider, treatment and services for his or her condition. The researchers argue the savings would be enough to insure all of the more than 47 million patients who were uninsured in the U.S. in 2006.
There's room to grow – only 22 percent of Americans are reported to be "proficient" when it comes to their understanding of health care costs and services, according to a U.S. Department of Education study.
Low-income adults are disporportionally affected. Health literacy was lower on average for adults living below the poverty level than those living above, the DOE's 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found. As income increased, so did health literacy.
Racial and ethnic minorities had lower average health literacy scores than White adults, the study showed. Forty-one percent of Hispanic adults and 24 percent of Black adults had below basic levels of health literacy, compared with 9 percent of White adults.
Those numbers complement MedPAC's findings that Hispanic and Black patients report poorer communication with providers than Whites and the 2012 National Healthcare Disparities Report which found that Hispanic and Black patients were less likely to be asked their preferences in treatment decisions.
The health literacy problem also poses a challenge for the success of the Affordable Care Act. Once the exchanges open on Oct. 1, the millions of new patients added to the system in the coming years are expected to have high rates of health illiteracy, as many of them may not have had health insurance before.
How to inform patients – and who to hold accountable for health information – remains controversial. Some MedPAC members argued that health literacy wasn't only the responsibility of the patient, but also the provider, to explain health options in ways patients can understand.
"What if patients were treated with dignity and respect?" said George Miller, a MedPAC member and CEO of CommUnityCare in Austin, Tex. "Maybe then they'd feel empowered."
The consensus among the group was that patient engagement was an important issue that needs to be addressed, but they were unsure how Medicare would play a role.
"Health literacy is a responsibility of the Medicare program in that we should be paying for care that supports shared decision-making," said Mary Naylor, MedPAC member and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.
But that, commission members said, leaves the question of how MedPAC would measure success, and providing financial incentives for patient-inclusion appeared contentious.
The commission will wrap up its meeting Friday at the Ronald Reagan Building, International Trade Center in the Horizon Ballroom.