three women running on a sunny day

Improving Health Literacy is Imperative to Improving Women’s Health

By Sheryl Markowitz, Senior Vice President, Clinical Operations, Healthfirst

As we focus on women’s health during Women’s Health Week, we should consider it through the prism of health equity — giving each woman the opportunity to achieve her full health potential.

Women’s health metrics are tied so closely to social determinants of health (SDOH). The CDC highlights seven health concerns impacting women and girls across the country: women who are caregivers, women with disabilities, menstrual hygiene, heavy menstrual bleeding, sexually transmitted diseases, intimate partner violence, and death from overdose. These struggles are an overlay on the existing leading causes of death in this country regardless of gender: heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, and stroke.

Giving women the tools to understand their health and take action to improve it is of the utmost importance — that’s why improving health literacy for women and addressing women’s unique social determinants of health should take center stage this May.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines personal health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” The NIH recently updated their health literacy definition to incorporate a broader public health perspective and emphasize someone’s ability to use health information, not just to understand it — therefore including access to care as a component of health literacy.

For women, an understanding of how one’s own body responds is instrumental in informing health literacy. We as an industry must understand that without stability, competency will not be fostered. Social determinants of health — such as concerns about housing, transportation, and physical safety — affect families and generations of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, aunties, and friends. In a vacuum where those basic needs aren’t stable, women are less likely to seek comprehensive, preventive, needed care.

Healthfirst occupies a unique position in New York’s healthcare ecosystem. Our unique hospital-sponsored model with New York’s largest healthcare systems lets us align on pilot educational materials and innovative ways to provide access to care. We can explore and discuss the opportunity to expand health literacy around women’s health.

As Healthfirst considers these challenges for our members, we are designing programs to support those who face unimaginable day-to-day struggles. We utilize a clinical model which looks at root cause analysis of disease in a variety of cohorts. We started a maternal-fetal health program that connects moms to community services. Healthy Families New York and Nurse Family Partnership provide members who are new moms with nursing visits for up to five years. This support is comprehensive and strives to prevent avoidable hospital and emergency room visits when primary care would be more appropriate. Healthfirst care managers are helping to screen members for postpartum depression to ensure there are appropriate referrals to behavioral health professionals, offering assistance for housing referrals and even access to diaper banks.

The road to improving health literacy for women is long. But if the dollars that come to new programs boost the ability to support women’s health, it would reverberate for generations. While Healthfirst is just beginning to address the unique needs of women, we are committed to searching for opportunities to partner with our communities, to pilot new concepts, and to start changing the future.