New Research Examines Health Literacy and Computer Usage of Low-Income Adults

Internet use and access has increased immensely over the past 15 years. In 1995, 15% of households had Internet access. In 2008, this number rose to 77%. During this time, the Internet has become an important source of information for health-related issues. It often serves as a primary source of information and as a way to research a diagnosis made by a health care professional. Because of these trends, a lot of interest has been growing in health literacy (or “e-health” literacy), especially among groups of people who are novice users. New research was published that examines the health literacy of low-income, Internet-using adults.

While the Web can serve as a much-needed tool for individuals searching for health education, access to the “information superhighway” has historically been unequal. Those who come from low-income and low-education backgrounds are not as likely to use the Internet or have access to it and therefore cannot benefit from this increase in free information related to health. The question remains whether these groups, as Internet use increases, are in a position to access health information and are capable of consuming it.

The study examined the relationship between health literacy and its relationship to technology access and use for low-income adults. According to Healthy People 2010, health literacy is defined as “the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Low-income adults from seven counties in Indiana were recruited to participate in the study and complete surveys about their computer use, access, and level of health literacy. Less than half, 43.8%, of the participants revealed that they needed assistance when using a computer. The findings of the study show that health literacy was not related to technology access for low-income adults; low-income individuals appear to have the opportunity to use computers, but are less likely to use them to research health issues than more affluent individuals. One reason is that low-income adults may find the jargon and information online to be too dense and esoteric to be meaningful. Other reasons include differing interests and reduced ability to navigate the Internet.

The researchers recommend that health technology developers create more interactive systems with touch- or icon-based systems to make them more intuitive for a wider range of user groups, health Websites should be redesigned in order to accommodate an aging and low-income population, and the information provided should use language that is comprehensible to a broader audience. Additionally, service providers who work with older adults and low-income populations should provide training on how to navigate the Internet to find trustworthy sites.

Source: Jensen, J., King, A., Davis, L., and Guntzviller, L. Utilization of Internet Technology by Low-Income Adults: The Role of Health Literacy, Health Numeracy, and Computer Assistance. Journal of Aging and Health, 22(6): 804-826.

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