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Cancer sites failing readability tests

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Cancer sites failing readability tests

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With my other half working in the healthcare industry, we regularly have discussions around the topic, and in particular at the various processes involved in promoting positive (ie healthy) behaviours.  Working in the field I do, I often come at the problem from a web perspective, and look at the various projects emerging online that aim to educate or cajole us into healthier habits.

It’s hard to dispute that there is a whole lot more content online now to educate people on a plethora of healthcare topics, be they giving us information about particular conditions or more lifestyle related topics.  A new study has explored just how effective many of these sites are at promoting changes in behaviour.

The study focused its attention on around a dozen websites with information on colorectal cancer to explore how easy to digest the content is.  These sites included some of the heavyweights of the industry, including the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

The study found that the majority of content aimed at educating patients was written at a level beyond the sixth-grade level recommended by many online content experts.  What’s more, the content would often fail to address key risks and barriers involved in screening for the disease.

“Today, the Internet often is the first point of contact between the patient and health-related information, even for patients with low literacy. In, thus, is a great opportunity for us to influence the decisions people make about their health and to steer them in the right direction. Informing patients is a physician’s responsibility and we take this role seriously,” researchers said.

It’s a serious issue, as colorectal cancer is the second highest cause of cancer death in the US, despite the presence of high quality screening tests.  Having effective educational resources therefore is of critical importance.

I’ve written previously about the increasing rate of online research amongst patients.  The study showed that 60% of us go online in search of information when we’re unwell, albeit much more common amongst women than men.  It must come as a concern therefore that 10 of the 12 sites studied failed to pass basic readability tests.

The study found that the sites were often too hard to read, failed to address key concerns, nor provided good information on how one could get screened.  The review found that only half of the sites discussed colorectal cancer risk in the general population and only a quarter specifically addressed patients at high risk, such as African Americans, smokers, patients with diabetes, and obese patients.  What’s more, the sites also did a poor job of discussing some of the core barriers that stop patients getting screened, be that embarrassment, pain or cost.

The paper concluded with the proviso that whilst web based information is often invaluable, it’s no substitute for consulting a professional.

“It is important to add that reading information on a website should not be considered a substitute for consulting a physician.  Internet information is best used as a supplement. With colon cancer screening, there are many options and each has its risks and benefits. An actual discussion with a physician would help patients choose the best option.” it said.

Despite that however, there really is no excuse for so many prominent websites to have such a poor grasp of the basic needs of their patients.

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