Trust in health literacy and co-design communication



TYPE Prevention Centre News

Associate Professor Carissa Bonner and PhD candidate Melody Taba from the Sydney Health Literacy Lab at The University of Sydney share how their research pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic, which provided a unique opportunity to study the health information environment of the internet. Listen to the podcast episode here.

They found a wealth of misinformation and disinformation, but were buoyed by a younger generation keen to improve their health literacy. The Lab defines that as the ability to find, understand, appraise, and use health information in ways that can benefit both individuals and communities.

Carissa is the Lab’s Deputy Director and a Senior Research Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and Economics in the Faculty of Medicine and Health. She is also Chief Editor of the Health Literacy & Communication Open journal and uses psychological theory and methods to address communication issues in public health. She has used this approach in her research project with the Prevention Centre on enhancing prevention in primary health care

There’s been a bit of a shift in our understanding of health literacy that we really need to be working at system and organisational levels, not just focusing on individuals and putting the responsibility on them. A lot of our work is focused on identifying and addressing communication problems that are a barrier to good health or to clinical guidelines. So, we work across things such as how we can help GPs explain heart disease risk assessments to their patients.

Carissa Bonner

Carissa is supervising Melody’s PhD research into youth health and social media. The COVID pandemic helped put a renewed focus on our understanding of health literacy as the public health sector grappled with an emerging ‘infodemic’ that social media helped spread on a global scale.

An infodemic is too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines the public health response.

World Health Organization

While young people have high levels of digital literacy having grown up on the internet, they have lower levels of health literacy because they have less experience with the health system. However, they use online health information frequently.

Young people really care about health. They’re really interested in learning about health and so it’s important that health authorities communicate health messages to young people in a way that they understand and is relevant to them.

Melody Taba

Melody’s thesis, titled ‘Optimising health communication to young people via social media in public health emergencies’, found health authorities rarely engage young people in their communications, especially during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. However, young people are eager to be involved in opportunities to co-design messaging.

Improving low health literacy and at the same time combatting the ‘wildfire of information’ in an infodemic requires different strategies and many are emerging from the field. The Sydney Health Literacy Lab’s research found insights from TikTok influencers communicating health information to people with low health literacy, with video formats working best and not much difference between the humourous TikTok style and the fact-based (more ‘boring’) government style videos.

Trusted sources can help improve understanding as long as they follow the rules for best practice accessible communications such as:

  • Plain English – simple language, clear and to the point
  • Design principles – simple animations that are engaging
  • Establishing reliable, timely, correct and culturally appropriate communication channels so that people know where to go for future health emergencies
  • Governments especially should harness social media and other online apps as key medium for health communication and not as an afterthought
  • Importance of codesigning the communications to understand the environment that are working in

These principles also underpin the Prevention Centre’s Science Communication User Guide for researchers to help improve health literacy.

Science Communication User Guide

Our guide has 12 comprehensive chapters with practical tips for knowledge mobilisation and science communication. Collated by the members of the Collaboration for Enhanced Research Impact (CERI), it guide covers everything communication-related for researchers, from writing opinion pieces and police briefs, to engaging with the media and podcasting.

A desk with pen and paper, laptop and mug. Photo by Oli Dale on Unsplash