Evolving Challenges of Digital Health Literacy

The buzz among digital healthcare marketers over the last several years has focused primarily on emerging social technologies, mobile platforms, and the long awaited FDA social media guidance. But there is one other major digital health communications trend that is often overlooked and deserves to be a part of these conversations: digital health literacy.

What do I mean? Digital health literacy is the concept of how the evolving digital landscape is impacting health disparities based on the patient’s capacity to obtain the latest health information and make educated decisions as that information increasingly moves online.

If digital healthcare marketers disproportionately focus on the latest web technologies used by the country’s most web-savvy patients, we miss the ability to effectively educate a significant percentage of the country about critical health information.


Digital Impact on Health Disparities

As a baseline, nearly 9 out of 10 of Americans already have difficulty “understanding and acting upon basic health information needed to make health decisions” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (source). This includes information from healthcare facilities, retail outlets, and traditional and digital media. This problem is exacerbated when we begin talking about varying levels of access to and understanding of online health information.

On one end, 72% of U.S. adults who are online are using it to search for health information (source). On the other, we have about 20% of Americans who do not use the internet at all. That bottom 20% also contains a significantly higher proportion of adults living with disabilities and who need greater access to the latest health information (source).

The internet shows no signs of slowing as a pervasive health communications tool, and it only makes sense for digital healthcare marketers to adapt their strategies to account for the online behaviors of web-savvy patients. This means accommodating for the decreasing attention spans and demand for multimedia-rich content of the country’s most web-savvy. But we cannot ignore those on the other end of the spectrum, those without the access, education, or experience to identify and interpret credible health information sources online. We cannot ignore the fact that there are significant portions of the U.S. population that are far less digitally literate than others. The healthcare industry must account for these unique audiences appropriately.

A Growing Concern
Those at risk of being negatively impacted by their ability to obtain and interpret online health information will not only grow in number, but in diversity as the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual mandate provides increased access to whole populations. They will have increased access to essential health services, and with that comes an increased need for accessible information to make informed decisions about their own health.

Recent research estimates those who will be newly insured under the ACA will be less educated, more racially diverse, and more than twice as likely to speak a primary language other than English. These changing demographics present unique challenges for effectively communicating online.

Individual healthcare exchange stats

(credit: pwc)

What Is Needed
While the government has stepped up to acknowledge the risks associated with digital health literacy, industry needs to play a significant role in alleviating these barriers that can prevent patients from effectively managing and advocating for their own health.

If the digital healthcare marketers continue to execute the same communications strategies from the early days of the internet or focus disproportionately on the latest emerging web and mobile technologies, we will only find ourselves increasingly disconnected from the populations that we are attempting to serve.

The American patient’s ability to effectively leverage the internet as a resource for managing and advocating for their own health is becoming increasingly diverse and complex. Digital health communications strategies need to follow suit.