High-Quality Care, High-Quality Content: What NCQA Means for Your Content Strategy

The accreditation seal from the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) is a common, even necessary, symbol of quality on health plan websites. When a health plan is accredited, employers and individuals can expect it to meet a wide range of performance standards, including easy, clear communication with health plan members…at least in theory. 

NCQA provides guidance on what the health plan needs to communicate, how the health plan's website should function, and how and when members get information. But do the NCQA's health care quality measures translate to high-quality content on health plan websites? 

I see the long lists of articles on diseases and conditions, wellness topics, and prescription drugs on many health plan websites. They are comprehensive, but it can be tough for users to identify the most relevant content. At the same time, in user research, we see people struggle with the basics: finding a doctor and understanding what's covered.

This prompted me to take a closer look at NCQA measures and standards. Several touch on content needs, and those requirements – when thoughtfully implemented – can help a health plan content team prioritize, create, and maintain useful, usable content. 

Let’s take a look at five attributes of high-quality content that connect back to NCQA requirements.

1. Useful
According to NCQA standards, health plans should provide tools on healthy weight (BMI) maintenance, smoking and tobacco use cessation, encouraging physical activity, healthy eating, managing stress, avoiding at-risk drinking, and identifying depressive symptoms. More than articles, these are interactive, useful tools that help someone manage their health. 

Related NCQA measure: 
MEM 2: Self-Management Tools

Action for content teams: 
Make these health management tools central to your editorial strategy. Create action-oriented content that helps readers build on the personalized health guidance they get from these tools.

Kaiser Permanente’s health and wellness content is action-oriented, focused, and consistently guides readers to their interactive, customizable tools.

2. Targeted
Given the volume of content I see on many health plan websites, I was surprised to learn that NCQA does not evaluate health plans on the availability of disease and condition management or wellness content on their website. Instead, NCQA states that the health plan should identify eligible members based on a health appraisal and other data and provide them with materials tailored to their disease, condition, or health risk. In other words, the NCQA does not envision users hunting through long lists of articles articles to find the content that’s most relevant to them.

Related NCQA measures:
QI 6: Disease Management,
MEM 8: Support for Healthy Living

Action for content teams:
Pare down content on diseases and conditions on the public-facing site and create a strategy for delivering highly personalized content to members who need it using email, the member portal, or mobile app.

common health topics
With long lists of health content, it may be difficult for readers to know where to start.

3. Accurate
In another sign that NCQA wants health plans to actively manage their content, several requirements refer to periodic content reviews and updates. Health appraisals and self-management tools should be reviewed and updated based on the latest evidence, and NCQA reviews the organization’s process for making these updates.

Related NCQA measures:
MEM 2: Self-Management Tools,
MEM 1: Health Appraisals,
MEM 5: Personalized Information on Health Plan Services

Action for content teams:
Define and document a process for updating content.

4. Usable
NCQA requires usability testing for physician and hospital directories and self-management tools. It's clear that simply providing these items on the website doesn't check the box: the health plan has to test whether they are easy for members to find and use.

NCQA also requires health plans to test whether new members understand the health plan's procedures and benefits. Again, providing these materials to prospective health plan members is not enough. This requirement pushes health plans to test and improve on this information.

The NCQA's language around self-service functionality further stresses the importance of usability. Current members should be able to complete a task on the website, such as ordering an ID card or accessing a claim, "in one attempt." When content and navigation aren't given close attention, one attempt may not be enough.

Related NCQA measures: NET 6: Physician and Hospital Directories, MEM 2: Self-Management Tools, MEM 3: Functionality of Claims Processing, MEM 4: Pharmacy Benefit Information, MEM 5: Personalized Information on Health Plan Services

Action for content teams: Work closely with designers and researchers to present information clearly and find out if it’s working for users. That means collaborating on the right label for a button, information architecture, and links on the home page. In your process for creating and updating content, be sure to include a step where this collaboration can happen.

simplified navigation points
A simplified navigation points health plan members to content that helps them use and understand their coverage.

5. Understandable
One phrase sticks out throughout the requirements: "easy-to-understand language." It's used any time content is mentioned, and it demonstrates the NCQA's commitment to clear and understandable information. Here’s an example from RR 3: Subscriber Information: “Information about subscriber benefits and services can be accessed easily and is written in user-friendly language.”

Related NCQA measures:
RR 3: Subscriber Information,
RR 5: Marketing Information,
MEM 1: Health Appraisals,
MEM 2: Self-Management Tools

Action for content teams:
Connect with marketing and compliance teams that may "own" certain content, such as materials for prospective members. Content written in legalese is not what the NCQA envisions, and as content strategists, we can help write these materials in a way that our users understand and make them easy to find and access.

A shift for content teams?
NCQA requirements make it clear that our definition of content needs to go beyond the health and wellness articles we publish on health plan websites. We need to expand our definition to include microcopy, instructional content, and member policies and procedures. Writers and content strategists need to get involved in building and improving the tools that members use to manage their benefits and improve their health.

We hope you'll take the NCQA requirements discussed here and use them as they are intended - not as a checklist of things to add, but as guidelines for building a useful, targeted, accurate, usable, and understandable experience for members.

In many organizations, content strategy spans multiple disciplines, and that puts us in a great position to help meet these standards, and at the same time, provide web-based content that really meets people's needs."

Contributed by
Allison Bland
Job Title
Content Strategist