Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The Readability of Medical Information on InfoTrac: Does It Meet the Needs of People with Low Literacy Skills?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

The Readability of Medical Information on InfoTrac: Does It Meet the Needs of People with Low Literacy Skills?

Article excerpt

Access to health and medical information has increased dramatically over the past decade with the advent of CD-ROM products. Public, academic, and hospital libraries, as well as consumer health information centers, have subscribed to InfoTrac, a consumer-oriented database. The purpose of this study was to determine the readability of medical information found on Health Reference Center on InfoTrac. More than 250 items from periodicals, newspapers, newsletters, and pamphlets were examined by disease, subheading, and type of document. Grammatik 5 was used to calculate the Flesch-Kincaid readability score. The findings revealed that the readability scores ranged from a low of tenth grade to a high of fourteenth grade and that all the material exceeded the accepted standard reading level of eighth grade. These results suggest that the items included in this study would not satisfy the medical information needs of people with poor reading skills.

For many years, both laypeople and reference librarians who have sought medical information in libraries have encountered problems finding relevant, current, and readable material. Some of these difficulties have been alleviated with the introduction of health-related CD-ROM products into public, academic, and health sciences libraries. Patrons who want information about a disease can perform their own searches on products such as Information Access Company's (IAC) Health Reference Center (HRC) on InfoTrac. Introduced in 1990 by IAC as a user-friendly source for health or medical material, this database provides access to a variety of sources, including medical, general interest, and health-related periodicals, as well as pamphlets, newsletters, newspapers, and five reference books. Full text is available for some of the material. Because HRC is updated monthly, the problem of finding up-to-date material has been reduced.

Although access to medical literature has improved through the use of HRC, the readability of the material retrieved by patrons from this database has not been addressed. The objective of this study was to determine the readability of a sample of consumer-oriented medical material found on HRC. Based on the results of a previous study by two of the authors, it was expected that some of the material would have high reading levels and, therefore, would not meet the information needs of all people, especially those who have low reading skills.[1]


The demographics of illiteracy in the United States are staggering. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, more than 47 percent of adults, or 90 million people, lack basic reading skills, while "another 50 million are only marginally literate."[2] Although people with poor reading skills can be found in all segments of society and in all geographic areas, they usually live in large metropolitan areas.[3] According to Miles and Davis, both "older Americans and inner-city minorities ... are twice as likely to have impaired literacy as the general population."[4] Furthermore, adults who are functionally illiterate are more likely to have lower incomes, complex health problems, and are slower to seek early medical intervention.[5] Doak, Doak, and Root suggest that at least two out of five older adults and inner-city minorities read below the fifth-grade level.[6]

The current changes in health care delivery dictate that people assume a more active and empowered role in their health care. However, empowerment may not be an option for people with limited reading abilities because they are not able to comprehend written medical information. Although lay medical (and health) materials are being published at a phenomenal rate, little material appears to be aimed at people who read below the eighth-grade level. In our earlier study, we investigated the readability of some popular consumer health materials recommended for inclusion in public library collections.[7] Materials included consumer-oriented health books, several medical books, and two medical journals--Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). …

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