State of Online Medical Information | Vividus Healthcare Marketing

The state of online medical information in Australia [2021 data]

The state of online medical information - Healthcare Marketing

Providing online medical information is not only a fundamental task of the healthcare marketing professional; it’s in the best interest of medical professionals to educate and inform the public about their health. Doing so helps to establish credibility in your field while increasing your reach and adding SEO value to your website.

Producing and distributing online medical information is the preferred method for many professionals, as this content is particularly accessible to readers and easy to share on a large scale. However, research overwhelmingly indicates that publicly available online health information is, on a whole, not presented in a way which is suitable for the average Australian reader.

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    This means that although information on many health conditions and procedures is widely available, it may not have the expected value to its Australian consumers.

    In this article, we investigate the readability and relevancy of online health information to Australians and provide insights on how health and medical professionals can approach content development for optimal reader comprehension and value.

    How readable is Australian health content?

    Overall, health and medical content produced by Australian websites is not consistent with the needs of the user in terms of readability. Insights indicate that online medical information available in Australia is consistently above the standard Australian levels of reading comprehension – sometimes drastically so.

    • The Australian Government’s literacy and access guidelines recommend producing content at or below a year 7 reading level to be usable for most people. A 2015 study found that only 0.4% of health-related web pages meet this standard. [source]
    • Less than 5% of Australian health and medical websites provide information in languages other than English, even though 20.8% of Australians don’t speak English as a first language. [source] [source]
    • Most Australian healthcare information has a ‘difficult-to-read’ Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score, even though 44% of Australian adults have low literacy skills. [source] [source]
    • A 2021 study found that the Australian pandemic communications had a mean FRE score of 35.4 – well below the recommended score of 60-80, and below communications from the USA, UK, and World Health Organization in terms of readability. [source]
    • Information on dementia consistently has among the worst readability scores, making it one of the hardest types of content for the average reader to understand. [source]

    How relevant is online health advice to Australians?

    A large portion of health information available on the worldwide web isn’t optimised for Australian audiences, instead targeting a broader, global user base. Although this can prove beneficial to many, it does not always result in advice which is in the best interest of the Australian user.

    • In Australia, symptom checkers aren’t classified as a form of medical service or device. This means symptom checkers aren’t regulated by the TGA, and may not always provide accurate advice to patients.
    • Most online triage advice skews towards seeking professional help or presenting to an emergency room. Triage advice provided by online symptom checkers is only appropriate in about 49% of cases. [source] 
    • Many symptom checkers recommend advice that’s inappropriate for Australians – such as immediately seeing a specialist (not possible without a GP referral in Australia) or by ‘diagnosing’ diseases which are rarely relevant to Australians (such as rabies or malaria). [source]
    • Studies have shown that the first diagnosis provided by a symptom checker is correct in only 36% of cases. In 58% of cases, a correct diagnosis will appear in the first 10 results. [source] Given that the average user won’t scroll past the first five or so listings on a search results page, it’s likely that many will never reach an appropriate result.
    • Online information is skewed towards providing generic advice which is suitable for a wider audience. However, a 2017 study by the Australian government found that Australians prioritise health and safety information about specific services or illnesses over general health information. [source]
    • When it comes to online publications, health and medical professionals often fall prone to describing conditions using complex terminology instead of user-focused, more understandable language. This can be confusing and alienating to patients. [source]

    What can be done to fill the gap in suitability?

    It’s in the interest of medical professionals to provide information which benefits patients; not just to educate the public, but to promote their practice. When created and managed effectively, this information can be a powerful tool for public health awareness and practice growth.

    To do this, it’s imperative to retain a focus on the end user and their needs. Remember the following as you approach content creation:

    • Be clear in your answers – while a generic response is often easier to produce, readers are more satisfied with an answer which answers their questions directly and in-depth.
    • Provide relevant information – information which is relevant to target patient base provides more value to the user, both satisfying their queries and establishing your credibility as an industry expert.
    • Employ readability checkers – many automatic readability checkers are freely available online. These can be used to assess the reading level of your content, determining its suitability for readers of different levels. The Australian Style Manual recommends writing to an Australian year 7 level to best meet the needs of Australian users – this translates to a FRE score of 60-80, a Gunning Fog score of 7-8, and a SMOG index score below 20.
    • Use user-friendly language – medical professionals often fall prone to describing conditions with complex terminology, rather than simpler terms which are more reader-friendly. This can be confusing and alienating to patients, leading to further questions and the need for additional research elsewhere. For more information, consult our article on creating user-friendly medical content.
    • Consult with the audience – consider having a friend or colleague with a non-medical background read through your content before publication. If they struggle to retain information or gain an effective understanding of the topic, a re-evaluation may be in order.
    • Consult with a copywriter or editor – in the words of Alexandra Tachalova, “a decent blog post is delivered by a specialist in the field and then tweaked by an experienced copywriter.” An experienced writer or copy editor can help balance readability with essential information for optimal reader experience.

    Concluding statements

    Unfortunately, the readability and relevancy of publicly-available health information is called into question for Australian users.

    As holders of reliable industry knowledge and professional insights, Australian health practitioners are uniquely positioned to fill the information gap. Doing so does not only benefit public interests: it brings the additional benefits of increased personal and practice visibility, which can prove a valuable asset to patient acquisition.

    With an approach accommodating of the needs of the consumer, Australian health and medical professionals can step forward to increase public health awareness in an effective way.

    For expert guidance in developing medical content, contact Vividus. Our team can help to identify gaps in available information in your field, strategize to communicate in ways which promote your practice, and professionally write and edit content to suit user needs.

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