Study: States And CDC Online Info About COVID-19 Is Too Complicated

Big words, difficult terms and long sentences make public virus information too difficult to understand for some, study says.
Posted at 7:08 PM, Aug 19, 2020

New research shows state public health and CDC websites are using overly complicated language to talk about COVID-19 and it could be having an impact.

Fomites. Quarantine. Infection. These are medical COVID-19 related terms and, for some, they could be hard to immediately understand. 

 The CDC, American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health say public health information should be for a 6th to 8th grade reading level.  The 2010 Plain Writing Act requires federal agencies to use “clear government communication,” too. But difficult terms, big words, and long sentences are common on the CDC and state public health websites.

"Out of all 50 states, none of them had public information about COVID-19 that was written at an eighth grade level or lower," Joseph Dexter, a researcher at Dartmouth who co-authored the study told Newsy.  

Dexter's research looked at more than 130 state and federal web pages in early April, examining COVID-19 pages like “FAQs—frequently asked questions” and fact sheets and compared them against literacy guidelines for an 8th grade reading level. He found that the CDC’s web pages averaged an 11th grade reading level. 

"Approximately three grade levels above the CDC's own recommendations. Nine of the 10 states with the highest illiteracy rate, their information was at a 10th grade level or higher," Dexter said. 

Scientists say complicated wording can impact communities with lower health literacy more, potentially worsening the effects of the pandemic. And with constant and changing information...distrust, mistrust and misinformation are happening for people who need to learn about the coronavirus the most. 

"The chances are that this health disparities population who are mostly impacted by low health literacy are not going to be able to understand what goes into this whole COVID-19 situation in terms of prevention approaches, in terms of therapies, in terms of all these quantifiable clinical trial information, which is quite unfortunate." Hae-Ra Han, Professor at Johns Hopkins University told Newsy. 

Complicated wording can mean gaps in which groups are sickened more by the virus. It also leaves nurses and doctors to combat confusion among patients. 

"Now, when you put information like that out, the general public is like "what?"" said Kim Armour. 

Armour is the Vice President and Chief Nurse Executive at Northwestern Medicine’s Huntley Hospital. She says at her hospital, they use analogies, pictures, and back and forth conversation to help patients. Above all, Armour says, it's about meeting patients and their families at their level.  

"When we talk about kind of baseline education and reading ability. Right. That's one small space of saying, OK. Could they be able to read it? Eighth grade level or four here in our organization, we really focused on the sixth grade level. I will tell you, in my doctoral school training, we did all of our work focused on a fourth-grade level."