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Is Limited Literacy A Public Health Risk?

Adults with limited literacy can face many uphill battles, including one we might take for granted:  knowing how to stay safe after a disaster.  In research just published in BMC Health Informatics and Decision Making, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences Sarah Bauerle Bass and other researchers used an innovative method to study how low-literacy adults process information about disaster response.  Their findings suggest that when it comes to knowing what to do after a disaster, we could be leaving many behind.

To conduct the study, Bass and her colleagues used eye tracking equipment, which records how someone’s eyes move across the information on a page or screen.  Eye tracking is often used in marketing research, but Bass and her colleagues saw an opportunity to repurpose it.  “This is the first study that has used eye tracking to understand how people who have limited literacy engage with public health education materials,” she says.  And as it turns out, it was a perfect method for the study. 

By tracking eye movements, Bass and her team could infer how well their study participants were able to read and understand the disaster-preparedness information they were given.  The researchers found that individuals with low literacy had trouble processing the kind of materials that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention typically publish online.  But when they read materials specially designed to match their reading level, they were far more comfortable with the information—and more likely to say they would make the right decisions in case of a disaster. 

According to Bass, the study has big implications.  “It’s estimated that almost half of the U.S. population has either basic or below basic literacy—while the majority of public health education materials are written at an eighth-grade reading level or higher,” she says. “This causes a disconnect between what we want people to know to protect their health, and what they can actually access and understand.” 

You can read more about Sarah Bauerle Bass here, or learn more about her Risk Communication Laboratory at the College of Public Health.  

Posted:  June 8, 2016