If you have trouble understanding health insurance terms, you’re not alone. According to a study in the Journal of Health Economics, only 14% of respondents could correctly answer four questions about the most basic components of a health insurance plan.
Collective Health is a San Francisco company that intends to change the conversation around health insurance plans by simplifying it. The venture-backed startup administers health plans for nearly 80,000 employees who work for a wide range of employers. The company’s stated mission is to make people love their health insurance plan. Bold? Yes. Unrealistic? Possibly not. The Wall Street Journal named Collective Health as one of its top tech companies to watch. After reading the article, I reached out to the co-founders because of one statement I found especially intriguing — the company’s materials are written for a third-grade reading level.
“Why third grade language?” I asked Rajaie Batniji, co-founder and chief health officer for Collective Health. “Why not eighth grade or high school?”
“Most people don’t have a sophisticated understanding of insurance terminology,” Batniji said. “We don’t assume they know how cost-sharing works or how their plan works, and so we put things in accessible language. All of our written communication should be easily interpreted by someone even in the third grade, and that’s intentional.”
Health insurance experts suffer from the curse of knowledge—they know too much about the topic and they assume the average employee is an expert, too. Batniji says that it’s simply not the case, and studies back him up. From the welcome kit to the online comparison of plan options, all of the material developed by Collective Health is meant to ‘surprise and delight.’ The health benefits are also very easy to understand.
All of the printed material, guides and online resources that employees receive from Collective Health are, indeed, written in grade-school language.
For example, a “deductible” is defined as:
“The amount you’ll pay up-front for care until your insurance kicks in.”
I inserted the previous sentence in a software tool that educators use to measure textbook reading levels. The sentence is not written in third grade language — it’s second grade. There are zero adverbs, zero uses of the passive voice, zero phrases that have simpler alternatives and zero sentences that are hard to read. It’s the simplest explanation for a term that confuses many consumers of traditional health plans.
When members are choosing among health insurance options, Collective Health presents simplified explanations to decode the features of each option. Each word is chosen for its simplicity and clarity. For example, in this screen shot from its mobile portal, a PPO plan is described like this:
“If flexibility is important to you when choosing doctors, this plan may be a good fit.”
The previous sentence has a readability score of 7, which means the average seventh-grade student should be able to read it with ease.
The simple word choice extends to language used by the company’s phone representatives. “Member advocates” don’t just answer phones. They are hired to enhance the experience. “Instead of hiring for a traditional call center, we hire really smart people to educate our members in the simplest possible language,” Batniji told me. The advocates are often graduates from top universities who have degrees in public health. They’re required to complete a rigorous eight-week training program before taking their first call.
Healthcare language is complex. Collective Health replaces strange acronyms and jargon with simple and clear language that it believes will lead people to make smarter decisions about their healthcare.