Research shows Australian health web sites are too difficult for the average person to read.

Dr Matthew Dunn and Ms Christina Cheng, researchers from Deakin University, evaluated the readability of Australian online health information to see if it matched the average reading level of Australians.

The results showed that health web sites are pitched above the average Australian reading level, making them an ineffective way to provide health information to the community.

“With around 16 million Australians active online and almost 80 per cent of them seeking out health information the internet is clearly an important way to help people understand and make decisions about their health,” Dr Dunn said.

“The limited availability of easy-to-read health materials suggests that many Australians are not benefiting from the convenience of the internet.

“The low readability also raises concern that many readers may misinterpret the information which could lead to inappropriate healthcare decisions.”

The researchers reviewed the content of 251 web pages, representing 137 web sites, relating to 12 common health conditions – bowel cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, anxiety, depression, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, back pain, obesity and dementia.

To determine readability, the pages were assessed against the recommended benchmark of year 8 reading level.

The results of the study showed that only 2.4 per cent of pages were considered ‘easy to read’ and 0.4 per cent were below a grade 8 reading level.

“None of the mean grade levels of the 12 health conditions matched the grade 8 benchmark, with information on dementia and obesity found to be the most difficult to read,” Dr Dunn said.

“That dementia and obesity information are among the most difficult to read is cause for concern. The growing prevalence of these two conditions means it is essential that easy-to-read health information is available to meet the needs of those most at risk of developing obesity and dementia.”

The study, 'Health Literacy and the Internet: A Study on the Readability of Australian Online Health Information', is published in the current early view issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.