Here's good news for family physicians who rely on FamilyDoctor.org for patient education materials: The majority of articles published on the health education website can be easily read by American adults, according to a study published in Family Medicine(www.stfm.org) in April.
The study analyzed the sentence length and word frequency of articles on FamilyDoctor.org, the Academy's award-winning patient education website. Using the Lexile analyzer to assign a readability score to each piece of text, the authors found that 59 percent of articles that appeared on the site in 2012 were written at or below the sixth-grade reading level. A similar study published in 2004 by Lorraine Wallace, Ph.D., a co-author of the current study, found that only 5 percent of patient education materials were written at or below a sixth-grade level.
"Readability of American Academy of Family Physicians Patient Education Materials" was conducted under Wallace's guidance by Malorie Schoof, M.D., a family medicine resident at Mountain Area Health Education Center's Family Health Center in Asheville, N.C.
"In medical school, we hear quite a bit about the low literacy level of many Americans," Schoof told AAFP News. "I thought it would be interesting to look at the resources we give patients and to know if the materials we're using are readable."
Patient education materials on FamilyDoctor.org meet recommended readability guidelines, the study found. Health education materials written at or below a sixth-grade level have been shown to improve patient understanding of medical information and improve patient communication with physicians. Even patients with higher literacy levels tend to prefer reading materials written at lower reading levels, Schoof said.
As part of the study, Schoof also analyzed AAFP patient education materials that were written in Spanish. These materials were written at an even lower grade level than their English counterparts. "We were very pleasantly surprised," she said.
More than one-third of American adults struggle with health literacy, which can be a barrier to care. "It's easy for us as clinicians, when we're short on time, to forget that patients might not get what we're telling them." Easy-to-read patient education materials are tools that help all patients improve their health, said Schoof.
"I was very happy to see how we came out in the testing," said Robert Kelly, M.D., M.S., medical director of FamilyDoctor.org. "Our goal has always been to be at a more readable level."
Most online health information is written at a high reading level, Kelly said. These materials can be helpful for well-educated readers, but they don't meet the needs of those with limited health literacy, he said.
"Over time, our writers have gotten quite good at what we refer to as the 'Family Doctor voice,'" said Ashley White, a content strategist for FamilyDoctor.org. Writing guidelines call for shorter sentences, simplified language and bulleted lists whenever possible, she explained. "Our editors keep this voice and style guide in mind when reviewing content on Family Doctor, and they also use a readability scoring system to gauge the literacy level of the content," White added.
FamilyDoctor.org provides trusted, reliable health information for the whole family. The site contains printable handouts on diseases and other health conditions, a symptom checker, and additional health education resources and tools. More than a dozen AAFP staff work on the website, and a seven-member medical advisory panel regularly reviews information shown on the site.