The darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on a silent killer for which vital signs and oxygen saturation measures do not help. It’s called health literacy – the gap between how health messages are communicated and what patients and health consumers can understand to make good health decisions.
One in five Americans reads at elementary levels,1 which includes people of all races and ethnicities, native and non-native English speakers, and high school graduates. Over 66 million people cannot read or understand most of the health materials that are distributed about COVID-19.
We can do better. Providing COVID-19 information that is understood by all Americans, regardless of their literacy level, is the only way to make sure that we can stop the spread of the disease.
We need to be better prepared. Public health agencies need alternatives to standard print information for the tens of millions who have low literacy.
Carefully written documents are important but having them available only on the Internet is useless for adults with low literacy. Ten percent of US adults – nearly 33 million people – have no Internet access 3 and aren’t searching Google to find COVID-19 information.
People with low reading skills rely on television and radio up to five times more often than on print information or the internet.2 We need to create television and radio public service announcements, not just YouTube videos.
Community-wide partnership plans need to be in place before emergencies strike so people can look to their own trusted sources for accurate information. Community organizations, adult education programs, and healthcare providers care for this same hard-to-reach population. Having plans in place can help people get health information when they need it the most.
Adults with low reading skills are suffering disproportionally through this pandemic because they can’t understand health materials. It has never been clearer that if we allow people with low literacy to fail, then all of us will fail. Failing means that thousands more will get sick and die. And that is not an option.
Author: Dr. Iris Feinberg is the Associate Director of the Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University and the Chair of the Georgia Alliance for Health Literacy.