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Most patient education materials suffer from lack of readability, study says

Patient education materials from 16 major medical societies all suffer from a lack of readability, making them difficult for patients to comprehend and potentially contributing to poor health literacy, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The basic problem with specialty societies' patient education materials is that they're written at too high of a reading level, according to the study, which was authored by researchers from New Jersey Medical School.

The typical U.S. adult reads at about a seventh or eighth grade level, according to researchers. As a result, key healthcare groups such as the American Medical Association and the National Institutes of Health recommend that patient education materials should be written at a fourth to sixth grade reading level.

The researchers' analysis, which used 10 different readability scales included in a software package, revealed that all the patient education materials fell short in that respect.

"None of the patient education resources provided by the 16 professional organizations met the recommended sixth grade maximum readability level or even the seventh to eighth grade reading ability of the typical American adult," they write.

Some of the specialty societies with patient education materials included in the analysis were the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American College of Physicians (ACP), the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), and American College of Radiology (ACR).

Of course, some patient education materials scored higher than others on the various readability scales that the study used. For example, the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula, which is based on an index of "familiar" words, showed that only family medicine, dermatology, and obstetrics and gynecology were within the boundaries of the average American adult reading level.

The authors concluded by stating that "website revisions may be warranted" to enhance the readability of patient education materials, and noting that pictures and video may be an effective way of increasing patients' comprehension of information that's too complex to fully explain with text.


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