Since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act rolled out, more than 17.6 million formerly uninsured people now have access to health insurance. As a content strategist working for a health insurance company, this has been an exciting time. I’ve been able to see my team’s day-to-day decisions about content usefulness turn into a user experience that makes it easier and simpler for people to understand their health insurance.

Health insurance is a complex, confusing product for most people, which increases the need to focus on content usefulness for each piece of content created. Besides medical terms and definitions, there’s an extra layer of insurance terms that people also need to understand. For instance, if you recently suffered a knee injury, you might get a letter or email that contains the following sentence:

“In order for the EPO plan to cover the expenses of your MRI, we’ll need you to choose an in-network provider. All fees covered will be paid after deductibles have been met and applicable co-insurance will need to be paid according to the enrollee’s plan.”

What this passage means is that you have to get your MRI at a place your health insurance plan has an agreement with. And while your insurance plan will cover your MRI, you’ll still need to pay your annual deductible and other fees. Those can be things such as coinsurance, which is usually a fixed percentage of the total cost. Just from this one example, you can imagine the confusion this language creates for health insurance consumers. Many customers don’t have the basic knowledge they need to understand or use what they’re purchasing. At the same time, health insurance companies are struggling to find a clear way to communicate how their products work and increase content usefulness for consumers. And health care is certainly not the only field suffering from content and language complexity.

Clear Language Is More Important Than Ever

Over the past few years, the media has seized on this confusion and used it to criticize the Affordable Care Act. Blogger Brian Rooney of The Rooney Report stated, “The failure of Obamacare is that when you buy a health insurance policy you have no idea what you’re buying, whether it covers you for what you will need, or how much it’s really going to cost.” Rooney also said that that the acronyms, definitions and complex insurance plans behind the ACA are creating confusion.

The complexity of health insurance hasn’t improved much since then. In fact, it may have become worse since the health insurance exchanges opened in 2013. At that time, Forbes discussed a problem bigger than complexity. Americans simply don’t understand their health insurance at all, partly due to the nature of how we interact with the product. Like the auto club membership that we keep for the occasional flat tire, we only pay attention to health insurance when we need it.

It can seem that health insurance companies deliberately design their products to be confusing and hard to use. Acronyms, unclear terminology and obscure definitions only compound the complexity. How many of us can confidently say we know the difference between HMO and PPO plans or copays and coinsurance? This challenge requires the attention of health insurance content strategists. Content strategy may not be able to solve the complexity of the product design, but simpler, plain-language vocabulary will get people more interested in their health insurance and greatly increase content usefulness for consumers.

But before we get into solutions that help you get started, I want to discuss three missed opportunities that happen too often regarding content usefulness.

Missed Opportunity #1: Content Creation Without Customer Understanding

This image is a selection from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois page dedicated to individual and family insurance plans. These are the plans you get when you’re buying insurance yourself.

content usefulness

While the information design is attractive, the content is less successful. Someone coming to this page would need to have inside knowledge to understand what they’re supposed to do. Phrases such as “Plan Network” and “provides most flexibility” might be clear to the people in the company who created it, but they’re less clear for people who don’t have the same background. What is a plan network and what does it mean to the person buying this plan? Does it mean that payments are flexible? Does a selection of doctors provide more flexibility? What does it have to do with doctors and hospitals in the link below? All of these things need to be addressed at the content creation stage.

We can see the same issue under the “Prescription Benefits” label. While most of us understand what generics are, do we know what a formulary is? Using plain language or giving definitions would increase the content usefulness greatly and make it much easier to understand.

Missed Opportunity #2: Not Paying Attention to Reading Level

Contently shared that a ninth-grade reading level or less is a good place to aim. This individual sample policy document from United Healthcare doesn’t make the cut.

content usefulness

When I ran this content through the Hemingway Editor, it had a grade 10 reading level. While that’s a good start, there are still some challenges in here, and most of them come from a misunderstanding of audience. In addition, terms such as “benefits” and “network providers” are not defined. These missing definitions keep a user from fully comprehending what they are reading. This document also suffers from another problem. Because it’s a legally-required document, it lacks clear, actionable suggestions. Like most health insurance content, it focuses on the company rather than the customer.

Alternatively, this example from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois is written at a seventh-grade level.

content usefulness

Missed Opportunity #3: Not Putting Your Customers First

Next, let’s take a look at a press release that lives in the site’s News section of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas homepage from January 2016.

content usefulness

When this press release was posted to the site, the company was trying to do the right thing and let customers know about an approaching deadline. However, when I ran this article through the Customer Focus Calculator, the results were lopsided because by the page focused on the company and not the customer, decreasing its content usefulness “score” greatly.  

content usefulness

If I’m a customer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, how do you think it makes me feel to only be addressed 26% of the time throughout this piece of content? It’s like talking to a narcissist at a party! Blue Cross of Texas’ customers would pay more attention if the company focused on them and spoke in a language that directly addressed their needs.

That’s harder than it sounds, but it’s absolutely possible, as this United Healthcare page shows with its 100% customer-focused score.

content usefulness

As you move your content strategy forward, you’ll need to recognize that labeling and vocabulary are just one piece of your success. Readability and tone can elevate your content usefulness and quality, too. Make sure that your editors and writers create content at an appropriate reading level – typically somewhere in the range of fifth to eighth grade. In addition, give your writers guidelines and examples for how to use the second person voice to create customer-focused content. Increased page views, lower bounce rates, increased engagement, and happier customers are just some of the returns you’ll reap.

Come back next week to read Part 2: Content Creation Tools for Getting Content Right from Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The Author

Jeff recently joined MRM-McCann as an Associate Director of Content Strategy. Before that, he led Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s digital content strategy from the launch of the Affordable Care Act through 2016. He’s also held positions in Digital and Internal Communications at The Walt Disney Company, Kellogg Company and Visteon Corporation.

Jeff earned his Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. He also holds an M.F.A. and B.A. in English from the University of Maryland at College Park. He lives in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich. with his wife and two kids.

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