The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both recognize education as a key social determinant of health that impacts individuals’ health outcomes. The quality of the education. If a student has access to safe and effective learning environments. If someone studies through fifth grade versus graduating high school versus an MBA degree. Each factor impacts health outcomes.
With students across the country – from kindergarten to graduate school – returning to the classroom for fall semester, the connection between education and health equity again emerges. The crucial role of education on driving health equity cannot be understated. For healthcare leaders, recognizing the interplay between education and health equity proves essential for designing effective strategies that address disparities and promote health equity for all their patients.
In particular, considering education matters as failure to do so will continue to impact the finances of risk-bearing organizations. For example, with new CMS requirements stating that Realizing Equity, Access and Community Health (REACH) Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) will need to substantiate the efficacy of their health equity plans come next year, healthcare leaders should consider all facets contributing to the success of health equity plans. And that means taking a hard look at education to understand how it impacts different aspects of health equity and what measures healthcare leaders can take to reach their health equity goals.
The Power of Education
Here’s what that looks like in practice. A well-educated population is more likely to engage in healthier behaviors, make informed health-related decisions, and effectively manage chronic illnesses. Research demonstrates a positive correlation between education and health status.
Thus healthcare leaders can play a pivotal role in fostering health equity by recognizing the benefit of education in empowering their patients. Educated patients are better equipped to understand their health conditions, adhere to treatment plans, and make lifestyle choices that promote well-being. By providing accessible and understandable health information, healthcare leaders can support patients in taking charge of their health, helping to reduce disparities in health outcomes.
Health Literacy and Other Barriers
Health literacy – the ability to understand and apply health-related information – is closely intertwined with education. Individuals with lower education levels may struggle with health literacy, leading to misunderstandings about medical instructions, medications, and preventive measures. For example, they may not have the skills to connect healthy eating with improved insulin levels. Healthcare leaders can help to bridge this gap by offering clear and simplified explanations, using visual aids, and tailoring communication to patients’ educational backgrounds. Such approaches can enhance patients’ ability to navigate the healthcare system effectively and make more informed decisions about their health.
Further, education equips individuals with critical thinking skills, promoting health equity. With this goal in mind, healthcare leaders can consider the benefits of collaborating with educational institutions to develop outreach programs, workshops, and community initiatives that address underlying factors like poverty, inadequate housing, and limited access to nutritious food. By taking a comprehensive approach that goes beyond clinical care, healthcare leaders can contribute to dismantling barriers that hinder marginalized populations from achieving optimal health.
Cultural Impacts of Education
People’s cultures and backgrounds impact how they engage with teachers, including health educators and healthcare leaders. For example, in some cultures, it is protocol to listen to the instructor and not ask questions nor contribute to discussions, as doing so is deemed disrespectful or even rude. In other cultures, individuals often participate in collaborative discussions and see them as the norm. With diverse caseloads of patients, healthcare leaders can support their cohorts through education that accommodates for a multitude of backgrounds and allows for cultural diversity. This might mean having patients bring questions up prior to meeting with the physician in-person or filling out a questionnaire to help them collect their thoughts in advance.
Leverage Education for Health Equity
Ultimately, a focus on education can do much to promote health equity and impact public health outcomes for all patients. Healthcare leaders and risk bearing organizations can thus leverage education to help transform the healthcare landscape. With the requirements next year for REACH ACOs to demonstrate the efficacy of their health equity plans, education can – and should – play a key role.