7 Things for Providers to Know about Digital Health Literacy

Content From: Michelle Vatalaro, Health Literacy Lead, In It Together project, and Jamal Refuge, Health Literacy Coordinator, In It Together projectPublished: June 12, 20184 min read


Photo of of a computer at a desk cubicle in a computer room or library.

You already know that many people look to the Internet for information about HIV and other health topics. But how much do you know about people’s digital health literacy, or their ability to access, understand, and use the information they find online? Here are seven things all HIV providers should know about digital health literacy.

  1. Fifty-nine percent of Americans have looked for health information onlineExit Disclaimer. They may use this information they as a way to talk with their health care provider about a sensitive topic, such as STIs or HIVExit Disclaimer. People may also go online to find community with others who share their health condition or support as they deal with their health issue.
  2. In order for people to be able to effectively access, understand, and use electronic health information, they need some other skills, too. Digital health literacy is impacted by people’s ability to read and understand written language and use a computer, smartphone, or other device. People also need to be able to understand health terms, identify credible sources of health information, and know the limitations and applicability of information they find. Michael Chancley, MSW, HIV Testing and Prevention Program Coordinator says, “I also strongly encourage clients to check resources if they are getting information from social media…Don’t take information from popular media such as blogs or even news sites as fact without questioning where they received their information or if that information has been taken out of context.” The New Orleans-based educator says, “I always have resources available such as HIV.gov, CDC.gov, or our state health department’s website, LouisianaHealthHub.org, for the correct information about statistics, prevention, and treatment.”
  3. People learn in different ways. The Internet is full of videos, podcasts, and images that can help people understand their health. If you go online to seek out consumer resources to help people living with HIV, search out accurate, easy to understand content in a variety of formats to accommodate different learning styles. Be sure to have options available in multiple languages, if applicable for your setting.
  4. Creating health literate content for your own website takes thoughtful planning. Think about who you want to reach, what their needs are, and what you want them to know. Get input on any materials you create from the people you are trying to reach early on. They can provide valuable feedback about the readability, organization, and appropriateness of the content. For example, if you are looking to engage black men who have sex with men, it is important to solicit their point of view to make sure the material is relevant and easy to understand.
  5. Readability is about more than just reading level. Make sure to define any acronyms and avoid jargon when you can. Use simple fonts, bolding, and an attractive color scheme to make it easy to follow. Break up the content by topic -- this is called “chunking”. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) Health Literacy Online guide can help you develop health websites and digital tools that can be easily accessed and understood by all users. Be sure to use web accessibility best practicesExit Disclaimer to ensure that people with disabilities are able to access and use the health information.
  6. People may not understand how their personal health information is used online. While many people use health and fitness apps to track health habits such as medication adherence or diet and exercise, people with limited digital health literacy may not understand if, when, and how their information will be shared with third parties. Consider security and privacy when recommending apps and other interactive tools to clients, and help clients to make informed choices that will support their health.
  7. Online patient portals can be a great way for people to be able to connect with their care teams, but they can be hard to navigate or use. People with limited health literacy may not feel comfortable using patient portals. Providers need to be thoughtful about how they communicate with their patients in order to ensure that patients can understand and act on the information that they need to successfully reach their health goals.

Health literacy is an important factor in people’s ability to successfully engage in care. Health care organizations have a responsibility to ensure that clients are able to understand the information that you provide them. To learn more about what your organization can do to become more health literate, visit the In It Together websiteExit Disclaimer to request a health literacy trainingExit Disclaimer at your organization or to access health literacy resourcesExit Disclaimer.