Internet usage by low-literacy adults seeking health information: an observational analysis

J Med Internet Res. 2004 Sep 3;6(3):e25. doi: 10.2196/jmir.6.3.e25.


Background: Adults with low literacy may encounter informational obstacles on the Internet when searching for health information, in part because most health Web sites require at least a high-school reading proficiency for optimal access.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to 1) determine how low-literacy adults independently access and evaluate health information on the Internet, 2) identify challenges and areas of proficiency in the Internet-searching skills of low-literacy adults.

Methods: Subjects (n=8) were enrolled in a reading assistance program at Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh, PA, and read at a 3rd to 8th grade level. Subjects conducted self-directed Internet searches for designated health topics while utilizing a think-aloud protocol. Subjects' keystrokes and comments were recorded using Camtasia Studio screen-capture software. The search terms used to find health information, the amount of time spent on each Web site, the number of Web sites accessed, the reading level of Web sites accessed, and the responses of subjects to questionnaires were assessed.

Results: Subjects collectively answered 8 out of 24 questions correctly. Seven out of 8 subjects selected "sponsored sites"-paid Web advertisements-over search engine-generated links when answering health questions. On average, subjects accessed health Web sites written at or above a 10th grade reading level. Standard methodologies used for measuring health literacy and for promoting subjects to verbalize responses to Web-site form and content had limited utility in this population.

Conclusion: This study demonstrates that Web health information requires a reading level that prohibits optimal access by some low-literacy adults. These results highlight the low-literacy adult population as a potential audience for Web health information, and indicate some areas of difficulty that these individuals face when using the Internet and health Web sites to find information on specific health topics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Computer Literacy
  • Educational Status*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Information Services*
  • Internet / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Pennsylvania
  • Surveys and Questionnaires