Coronavirus websites usually go over people's heads, study finds

Development of accessible, easy-to-understand Covid-19 resources for all audiences are urgently needed, said researchers in a new study.

(CNN)Excuse me? What's that mean?

When it comes to educating the world about coronavirus, public health organizations around the world uniformly exceed recommended reading levels, researchers reported Tuesday.
That includes guidance from the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    While most public health guidelines are supposed to be written at between sixth- and eighth-grade reading levels, many websites for the public aim higher.

      Way above their own standards

      Joseph Dexter, a fellow at Dartmouth College's Neukom Institute for Computational Science, and Vishala Mishra, a multidisciplinary researcher at Madras Medical College in India evaluated the readability of 18 websites offering coronavirus health information.
      Dexter and Mishra focused on websites with guidelines written in English by three public health agencies and 15 official government sites in countries with more than 5,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
        The team assigned readability levels to each source based on different formulas, including the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, which determines the level of education a person needs to be able to easily read a piece of text. All 18 sources, the researchers found, uniformly exceed recommended reading levels.
        The CDC website and other US government websites were written at or above a Flesch-Kincaid 11th grade level, the study found.
        Dexter and Mishra noted that the CDC, American Medical Association and National Institutes of Health all recommend public health information be written at or below an eighth grade reading level. The CDC recommends using eight to 10 words per sentence and the use of everyday synonyms in lieu of complicated public health terms.
        The CDC website also hosts an "everyday words index" for public health communication. For instance, instead of using the term "respiratory," it recommends describing respiratory illnesses as conditions that can affect a person's nose, throat and lungs and make it difficult to breathe.
        The research team noted that 99% of the CDC pages analyzed used at least one of the difficult public health terms discouraged by its own agency's guidance.
        Dexter and Mishra analyzed US state coronavirus guidelines separately and found that "nine of the 10 states with the highest illiteracy rates had information written above a grade 10 level."
        On an international level, the World Health Organization's site reads at just below a 12th grade level. The website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control received the highest grade level, 13.1, and that of the Netherlands government received the lowest, 7.8, the researchers reported in JAMA Open Network.

        Readability contributes to behavior

        Coronavirus resources below a sixth- to eighth-grade reading level are few and far between, Dexter said. He cited two sources that come closer to meeting health literacy targets -- one from the Swiss government outlining coronavirus information in short bullet point form, and another compiled by the US state of Vermont for people with disabilities. Neither were included in the team's original research.