Whether you are a trained healthcare provider, a grocery store clerk, or a retired professor, you are probably seeking information about COVID-19 and how best to take care of yourself and others. However, your age, level of education, and other factors may influence how you seek information and how likely you are to benefit from it.
IES researchers Dr. Taka Yamashita (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Dr. Phyllis Cummins (Miami University) have been exploring the intersection of education, age, health, and problem solving (grant R305A170183). Program officer, Dr. Meredith Larson, spoke with them about their work and its implications during the current pandemic.
What has the COVID-19 epidemic brought to your attention?
For us, the COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted health information disparities by education and basic skills. In combination with other risk factors, like older age and lower income, some sub-populations are particularly vulnerable in the public health crisis. It is our sincere hope that our research underlines the urgent needs to promote education, literacy, and numeracy throughout the life course, not only to protect vulnerable populations but also to promote disaster preparedness and the well-being of our society.
What does your research suggest are important factors for predicting health information seeking behavior?
In general, we often seek health information only when we need it due to poor health. What is interesting is that, when we need health information, some sociodemographic characteristics and basic skills (for example, reading and numeracy skills) lead to differences. For example, in our analysis of PIAAC data, older age is related to lower usage of online health information sources while greater literacy skills are related to use of more online health information sources. Also, people with greater educational attainment and higher literacy skills are more likely to seek disease prevention and health promotion information from online sources and books. Overall, age, education, and literacy skills are closely and consistently related to what kind of health information sources people use and how much they do it.
How might these factors affect what people find or whether they benefit from it?
Age, education, and literacy skills differentiate how and where people seek health information. We believe that the Internet is one of the best information sources in terms of timeliness and amount of available information. However, some sub-populations, such as younger adults, those with higher education, and those with higher literacy skills, tend to take advantage of and benefit from the online health information more than their counterparts. As such, older adults, those with lower education, and those with lower literacy skills tend not only to miss online health information sources but also to under-utilize and/or mis-use health information.
What could information providers do to better reach different audiences?
Information providers could consider how and where they publish their information. For example, older adults, those with lower education, and those with lower literacy skills tend not to use online sources. Therefore, it is critical to provide accessible health information to offline sources such as newspapers and healthcare professionals (for example, face-to-face with a physician or nurse). Also, paying attention to the “at-risk” populations’ needs is important. There are simple things like using a large font, plain English and multiple languages (for example, English and Spanish) that can immediately enhance the quality of health communication.
Where can people go to learn more about this line of research?
More information about our studies on education and literacy can be found on our IES grant page. Also, one of our recent articles on literacy skills, language use, and online health information seeking among Hispanic adults in the United States has been featured in the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) health communications science digest.
Written by Meredith Larson. This is the second in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges. The first blog post can be found here.