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Health Literacy: Are you smarter than a web page?

By The Intersection
Mar 9, 2011 10:32 PMMay 18, 2019 1:34 PM


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This is a guest post composed by Zara Risoldi Cochrane, PharmD, Drug Information Specialist at Creighton University, as part of the NSF Science: Becoming the Messenger workshop in Lincoln, NE.

Think about your ten closest friends.  If they are anything like you, they’re curious, well-educated, and interested in scientific information.  (You are, after all, reading The Intersection.)  Despite this, only one of your ten friends has adequate health literacy skills. You read that right: ONE.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Study, 87% of US adults don’t have the skills they need to manage their health and prevent disease.  When we think of literacy, we typically think of what we learned back in grade school: the ability to read and write.  But health literacy is much more.  It can incorporate many other skills including numeracy (the ability to work with numbers), computer literacy, and the ability to navigate the healthcare system.  Another key feature of health literacy is that consumers of health information (that is, patients) need to be able to act on the information they read.

Health literacy is a real challenge because health information is everywhere these days.  We’re bombarded with it wherever we go: billboards, magazine ads, television and radio spots.  But one of the most common ways that patients digest health information is through the internet.  In 2003, there were over 50 million health-related webpages online, and that number has almost certainly grown since then.  More than 5.5 million Americans search the internet for health topics every single day, and a majority of patients head online as their first source of health- or medication- related information.

A resulting concern is our patients’ ability to read and understand health information they find on the internet.  (Accuracy of that information is a separate issue, and good fodder for another blog post.)

As scientists, researchers, and healthcare professionals, we need to ensure that health information we post online is easy to read and understand.  Readability - how easy it is to read a passage of text - can be measured quickly and simply using software packaged into Microsoft Office (Flesch-Kincaid method, Flesch Reading ease) or available online (e.g. SMOG method).  We should aim to write patient education materials at fifth to eighth grade level, or lower.

Providing clear, easy-to-read online health information is critical as our patients increasingly head to the worldwide web for the answers to their questions…instead of the doctor’s office.

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