Guest Blog: What you don’t know can hurt you: Has media coverage of health care increased consumer understanding? by Barbara Tabor

Guest Blog: What you don’t know can hurt you: Has media coverage of health care increased consumer understanding? by Barbara Tabor

Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss. But when it comes to health care, a lack of knowledge or misinformation can be detrimental to your physical and financial health. But here’s the rub: When it comes to understanding health care, most people don’t pay attention until they need to. For instance, think about the last time you sat down to read your health plan Summary Plan Description…for no reason? Or randomly searched for information about a health condition or a medical procedure that did not immediately pertain to you or someone you care about? People simply don’t have the time or inclination to tune in to news and information about health care unless it’s personally relevant.

Does more news mean better information?

The first place most people turn when they need information is to their favorite news source or the Internet. According to a report produced by the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, Americans consumed a staggering 6.9 million gigabytes of online information in 2012. That’s 63 gigabytes per person, per day. Picture this: if 6.9 million gigabytes of information were printed in textbook form, it would produce an estimated 14-foot-high stack of textbooks that stretches across the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii).

In 2013, a significant amount of media coverage pertained to health care reform; namely, the insurance mandate and the individual health insurance exchanges. The volume of stories and opinions about health care can be overwhelming. Members of the media confirm that health reform legislation was the dominant story of 2013.

  • In an annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors by the Associated Press, the “glitch-plagued rollout of Obamacare” was voted the top news story of 2013.
  • An analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found the health care debate accounted for 37 percent of available space in newspapers in March 2013.

With this much information available daily, the average American consumer should be adequately informed about health care, right? Not quite. According to a News Interest Index survey (a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events):

  • 75 percent of people say news organizations have done only a fair or a poor job explaining the details of health reform,
  • 71 percent gave negative ratings to the press for explaining the effects that health reform would have on them,
  • 34 percent say the media’s explanations of reform details have been only fair, and 41 percent say the media’s explanations have been poor, and
  • 34 percent of Americans still say they don’t understand the law (according to a USAToday poll).

I believe the gap between the amount of health care news available and public understanding of health care is largely attributable to the fight for mindshare and the fact that media outlets are doing more with less.

  • There is a mind-boggling amount of information available and being pushed at consumers every day. How can people effectively filter out the misinformation and identify trustworthy sources that give them hands-on information to become better consumers?
  • Newsrooms are shrinking and reporters have more stories to cover in less time (many cover multiple beats and write for print and online content daily). This means some worthwhile stories may be overlooked and others may not be as in-depth as we would like. 

What can be done?

Educating consumers about health care is an opportunity, not a problem. Yes, there is a lack of information in some areas and misinformation in others; but health care stakeholders can work collectively to develop and disseminate information and connect consumers with reliable resources that provide a deeper level of understanding of new technologies, treatments, benefit changes, and cost and quality data.

Rather than hoping news media will focus on the information that we in health care think is important, take charge and help employees navigate the tangled web of information. Resources such as employer toolkits provide turnkey communication resources on important health topics. And when possible, offer links to websites that provide useful, actionable information to consumers. You might even consider sites that help consumers evaluate what they read or see in the news about health care, such as

While I realize I’m advocating for providing even more information to consumers, the key difference is providing information that is specific, actionable and that helps consumers take charge.