Health Literacy and Science Communication: Two Sides of the Same Health Communication Coin?

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Did you know that October is Health Literacy month?

As part of this month-long focus on clear and understandable health information, the Massachusetts General Hospital Blum Center recently hosted a talk by Stacy Robison, MPH, MPCHES, co-founder of CommunicateHealth—a health education and communication firm—on the issues of health literacy in the digital age and how to create accessible content for adults with limited health literacy skills.

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. (2)

Considering that 72 percent of internet users looked up health information online in the last year, yet half of Americans read at an 8th grade level or below, there’s a clear need for digital health materials that all readers can understand, Robison said.

Robison also emphasized that we can’t write off low health literacy as a health disparity with no feasible solution — individuals in the healthcare field can play a role in addressing the issue by creating comprehensible tools and resources.

She provided the following three strategies for making easier to use materials:

  1. Create content that’s relevant and actionable: Put the most important information first and prioritize behaviors. For example, a webpage titled, “How to prevent asthma at home” is more actionable and appealing to readers than a webpage called “About asthma.”
  2. Display content clearly: Use bullets and short lists (like this one!), and avoid paragraphs with more than three lines of text. Robison’s research has shown that individuals with low literacy levels tend to skip over large chunks of text.
  3. Engage users: Take advantage of the capabilities of digital platforms to create content that’s interactive and shareable, and that uses videos or graphics to illustrate a point when appropriate.

What does this mean for the medical and scientific research community? We here at the Mass General Research Institute are big supporters of good science communication and see many overlaps in the principles of health literacy and the principles of science communication.

Our goal is to provide you with the essentials of a research study in short, easy-to-digest posts. We try to set the context to help you understand what the research means, and put the big takeaway at the top of the post.

Let us know how we’re doing! What could we do better? What science resources do you look to?

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