by Dinethra Menon
Creating engaging content involves writing compelling, accurate health information, yet we also need to understand the health literacy of our readers.
Consumers who have good health literacy can often bridge the gap between health information and how that promotes healthy living.
We may assume our readers mostly consist of adults who are seeking health information to make informed decisions in their lives.
However, more evidence is pointing to young adults, particularly those in high school, who are interested in understanding and learning more about health.
Young adults may not make all health decisions without help from adults. But, teens may already be making decisions about broader health issues, such as consuming sports drinks, supplements or skin creams.
High school students with chronic illness, such as asthma, may also access and interpret health information online.
How well do high school students understand and accurately interpret health information?
Although previous research has assessed adults’ understanding of health claims, there hasn’t been a lot of research looking at how high school students understand health information. It’s clear this is an emerging area of focus, though.
A recent qualitative study, published in the journal Health Expectations, explored 27 Australian students’ understanding of, and attitudes towards, health information and claims. The students in the study were aged 12 to 15 years old.
Three themes emerged that suggest high school students:
- lacked understanding of basic health research processes, and
- weren’t able to accurately assess health claims or make informed decisions about their health.
Understanding how to address these themes can help us to:
- better educate high-school aged young adults
- develop high school students’ health literacy skills, and
- help the next generation grow into adults who can make informed health decisions.
Theme 1: Variability in understanding accuracy of content and sources of health information
There was variability in access to sources of health information, with high school students reading health claims from medical centres, government authorities, parents, online searches or prior exposure to packaging from products.
However, when the researchers asked the students their understanding of the accuracy of the content they sourced, only a few students could elaborate on concepts of “evidence”, “research, “scientists”, “experiments “ or “testing”.
Interestingly, nearly all the students believed most health claims were based on vested interests that are behind health information.
The study demonstrated high school students make decisions based on personal judgements and influences, such as the presentation or the information source, instead of the quality of evidence.
Key take-home: We can use our writing to effectively communicate what makes evidence reliable and the value of high-quality sources of evidence.
Theme 2: Lack of understanding how to assess health information for trustworthiness
None of the students in the study mentioned understanding formal or validating methods of assessing health information or claims.
Instead, the students evaluated the sources based on personal experience and familiarity, corroboration, top results from online Google searches, the reliability of the source, and quality of the product packing or presentation.
High school students’ lack of understanding of the research process meant they instead relied on an endorsement from health professionals for credibility.
“[I’d believe it] if a doctor has said it… or someone qualified enough to prove it.”
For high school students to accurately assess the effectiveness of health interventions, they need to understand concepts, such as randomisation and blinding, placebo effect and relative risk compared to absolute risk.
Key take-home message: Our writing should strive to describe how researchers conduct their research, explaining concepts simply with enough detail to demonstrate their meaning in real life.
Theme 3: Uncertainty about language used to make health claims
Although high school students associated medical terminology with research performed, most students didn’t understand the meaning of the terms “evidence-based”, “clinically proven” and “scientifically tested”.
Only half of the students in the study responded “newer” interventions meant research had improved existing health interventions.
Some students even perceived new interventions negatively, “…some new treatments work as well, but not just as reliable as the old ones that have been used for a long time.”
Scepticism about the credibility of health information and claims is likely to be based on a lack of understanding of relevant health terms, such as “evidence” and “studies”.
Key take-home: We must continue to define basic medical terminology while avoiding using jargon in our writing (see ‘Wising up – writing clearly without ‘dumbing down’).
- McCuaig L. Coore S. Carroll K. et al. Developing health literacy through school-based health education: Can reality match rhetoric? 2012 School of Human Movement Studies, The University of Queensland Australia
- Cusack L. Desha LN. Del Mar CB. et al. A qualitative study exploring high school students’ understanding of, and attitudes towards, health information and claims Health Expectations 2017;1-9