September 2015

Out on a limb: Reading lessons

1Limb-JordanaBy Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

The Internet and social media have transformed health advocates’ ability to disseminate educational information, which has the potential to substantially improve outcomes across all healthcare disciplines. But such efforts can’t achieve broad success without taking into account something many of us consider a basic skill: the ability to read.

In a September 7 post on the British Medical Journal’s Injury Prevention blog, Australian sports medicine researcher and doctoral candidate Sheree Becker, BA(Hons), detailed examples of how social media platforms have been used to increase awareness of health issues, including suicide prevention. “Could we harness simple initiatives such as these for injury prevention messages?” Becker asks.

And why stop there? Similar initiatives conceivably could—and should—be used to advocate for diabetic ulcer prevention, osteoporosis prevention, or fall prevention, to name just a few lower extremity examples.

But, just as clinical interventions can’t help patients who aren’t compliant, even the most accurate, relevant healthcare information won’t help people who can’t make sense of it.

Even as the volume of healthcare information available to the general public has increased with the advent of the Internet and social media, the average person’s reading level has stayed the same—at about the eighth-grade level in the US (see “Health literacy: The challenge of making information accessible to patients,” page 18). And variables such as age, illness, anxiety, and medication use can adversely affect health literacy even among people who typically read at a more advanced level.

To their credit, a number of lower extremity specialty organizations are making an effort to achieve that eighth-grade level of readability in their patient education materials. But given that most clinicians and researchers are comfortable using much more advanced terminology when reading, writing, and speaking, the task of translating complex healthcare concepts into more basic language can be—somewhat ironically—very challenging.

Just as interventions can’t help patients who aren’t compliant, healthcare education won’t help people who can’t make sense of it.

Health literacy may be an elusive goal, but it’s an important one, not just for specialty organizations but for anyone who uses the Internet or social media to inform mainstream audiences. During a clinic visit, a practitioner can administer a short questionnaire or use other techniques to get a sense of a patient’s health literacy level. But when sending information into cyberspace, and especially when social media is involved, one never knows who might end up on the receiving end of that information, much less the extent to which they might understand it.

“We do not always need to disseminate purely our most up-to-date research results, or even the most innovative interventions; sometimes our work life’s work is bigger than that,” Becker wrote. “Sometimes we need to advocate for the very heart that lies at our work: simple, credible information and resources that can make a difference in even one person’s life.”

In research, in the clinic, and in journalism, we talk a lot about ensuring that the information we disseminate is credible. But to really get through to patients, keeping it simple may prove to be just as important.

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