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Reading the room on digital health literacy

Bringing healthcare into the digital age has created numerous benefits, but it has also introduced unintended consequences. From search engines to social media, patients may come across confusing, irrelevant or false information that could affect their health behavior. And for those with limited computer skills, navigating health information online may be downright impossible.

Provider organizations can enhance patient understanding of conditions, treatments and care plans by addressing digital health literacy. Let’s explore this social determinant of health (SDOH) and strategies healthcare organizations can leverage to support patients’ health information needs.

The state of digital health literacy in the U.S.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines digital health literacy as “the ability to seek, find, understand, and appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem.” Variables that influence digital health literacy include age, health status, educational background, digital literacy skills and motivation for seeking information.

While national studies measuring digital health literacy are limited, digital literacy and health literacy trends offer us helpful context. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that 36% of adults have basic or below basic health literacy. Additionally, a separate study found that 16% of adults do not have sufficient comfort or competence with technology to use a computer. Together, these findings suggest millions of Americans struggle with gathering and interpreting health information through electronic means.

How providers can make a difference

As practices transition from fee-for-service to value-based care models, providers will have a greater stake in a patient’s digital health capabilities. While providers cannot dictate patient use of the internet, there are several measures they can take to enhance patient understanding and care plan adherence.

First, providers can share ways patients can become active participants in their own health to boost their confidence in their comprehension of their care. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that patients write down questions and concerns before appointments as well as take notes on what their providers tell them. Bringing a family member or close friend to visits can also add a source of comfort and support afterward. Providers should also share how patients can contact them with questions and concerns, such as simple instructions for navigating their patient engagement platform.

Second, while Googling health issues is not the best idea, we know patients will continue to look to the internet for medical information. Providers should consider sharing a list of trusted, reliable resources that patients can reference for additional information, such as the NIH website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and their organizations’ websites.

Third, reassessing your organization’s website may reveal opportunities to make the content more understandable to those with limited digital health literacy. The CDC recommends that health information be accurate, accessible and actionable. (Here “accessible” information means people can both see and use it.) Ensure content is written in plain language to increase comprehension and avoid dense walls of text, as these can introduce cognitive processing challenges for those with limited literacy skills. Additionally, add content for those with limited English proficiency where needed, as 8.3% of people in the U.S. speak English less than “very well,” per the U.S. Census Bureau.

With these tips in mind, providers can steer patients in the right direction online and continue being the stewards of health they have always been. For more information on digital health literacy and guidance on developing digital health resources, check out this guide created by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP).

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