Assessing websites and low health literacy

Simple review guidelines

Patient education managers faithfully assess written materials to make sure they are appropriate for people with low health literacy or poor reading skills. They must be just as diligent when selecting websites for educational purposes, says Abigail Jones, MLIS, MA, consumer health librarian at the Library for Health Information in the Atrium at The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

"It is important to be able to evaluate websites and know where to direct people for good, easy-to-read information, so they have the opportunity to have the best information available to them," says Jones.

As a consumer health librarian, Jones has become skilled at selecting websites that provide appropriate information for patients and families who may not read well or are unfamiliar with medical terminology or certain diseases and health issues.

The first step in evaluating a website is the assessment of the general cyber information to determine if it will be a valuable health resource for consumers, Jones explains. Determine if the information is current by looking for a notation of the last update. If it is a website with lots of pages and documents, look to see if each is dated and when updates occur.

Another important aspect, according to Jones, is the source for the information. Often, there is an "about us" tab or link that tells the user the author of the material or website sponsor. It's important to ask what makes the source an expert and, if he or she has credentials, what those are, says Jones.

Also important is objectivity or absence of bias. Determine if the website has a board or oversight group in addition to the authors or editors of the material, Jones advises. She adds, "Is there information on the website about the review policy or editorial policy?"

Sometimes the organization sponsoring the website is enough of an authority that people would know everything on the site is authoritative and has been written by experts, says Jones. This is the case with MedlinePlus, a consumer health website from the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.