Improving Online Health Literacy

With the amount of available web-based health information and the increasing demands on individuals to make their own health care decisions, online health literacy is becoming an important skill. Researchers have coined the term e-health literacy to refer to the set of skills needed to find, evaluate, and use online health resources. As increasing numbers of older adults are going online for health information, it is important for researchers and educators to find ways to improve e-health literacy in older adults. A study conducted in early 2011 found that an e-health training program for older adults was effective in improving participants’ computer skills, e-health literacy, and health care decisions.

A training program was provided to a group of 146 older adults, the majority of whom were African-American and female. Participants were separated into two different groups that were taught using varying learning methods: collaborative and individualistic. Collaborative learning involves working together as a group, in contrast to individualistic learning, in which each student focuses only on their own learning. These two learning method groups were further subdivided into groups with different gender composition (all-female, mostly female, evenly divided, and mostly male), familiarity with peers, and baseline computer skills. These sub-groupings enabled the researchers to assess if different social settings would be more useful in providing e-health training.

The researchers used a toolkit designed and provided by the National Institute on Aging, which is designed to help older adults use the online health information made available by the National Institutes of Health. This toolkit involves education on basic computer skills and on evaluating online health information. Classes took place in public libraries and lasted two weeks. Participants were tested on their computer skills and e-health literacy before and after the program, and were also asked after the two-week period about their attitudes toward the class and any changes in their participation regarding their own health care.

There was significant improvement in e-health literacy, knowledge, and computer skills after the course, and participants evaluated the program very favorably. There were no statistically significant differences between learning methods or group composition, which differs from findings on similar evaluations in younger learning groups. Participants also reported making changes in their health care decision making based on the course, although this was self-reported and it could not be verified if actual changes in behavior were made. Overall, participants across groups showed significant gains in e-health literacy skills, suggesting that e-health literacy training may be an effective means to improve the health care resources of older adults.


Xie B. Effects of an e-Health literacy intervention for older adults. 2011. J Med Internet Res. 13(4):e90


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