Government’s COVID-19 vaccine information campaign an opportunity to provide clearer messages and give community confidence

Public Health Association Australia

Late last month the Australian Government launched its $23.9 million public information campaign to encourage Australians to get a COVID-19 vaccination when they become available later this month.

The multi-media campaign aims to keep Australians fully informed and up to date about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, including when, how and where to get the jab.

The campaign launch comes against the backdrop of a report recently published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health which says most government information on COVID-19 in 2020 was too difficult for the majority of Australians to understand.

Authors, Dr Cath Ferguson, Dr Margaret Merga and Professor Stephen Winn from Edith Cowan University based their research on the premise that almost half of Australian adults struggle with reading. Additionally, government communications in a crisis can influence public health outcomes.

The research investigated whether written communications of the most commonly sought sources of COVID-19 information available on the internet have readability levels commensurate with those of the general public.

While the research focused on the readability of information about COVID-19 on Australian Government websites, online documents from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US and UK governments were also assessed for readability.

The report said: ‘in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which information rapidly evolved, maintaining current and accurate communications with the public was important, and written communications played an important role.’

The report said it should not be assumed that Australian adults have sufficient adult literacy skills to comprehend complex health messages.

‘Accordingly, attention must be given to producing health communications at a readability level that allows informed knowledge to be distributed, received and understood by the general population, especially during a crisis.

‘Lower levels of literacy are more evident in vulnerable groups of low socioeconomic status, which has a relationship with cognitive abilities that persists throughout the lifespan. Older age groups and vulnerable populations are reported as being at greater risk of serious illness with COVID-19, and also have generally lower levels of literacy.’

Based on their readability scores, only two of the 52 government documents analysed were considered to be accessible to the Australian and US general population, and none to the UK community.

On the basis of this research the report recommends government departments and other organisations responsible for the communication of public health measures should familiarise themselves with the diverse reading abilities of their populations. It also suggests the employment of literacy experts to assist them in the communication of health messages in emergency situations.

Documents aimed specifically at vulnerable communities must consider the literacy abilities of these groups and documents posted on the internet should be assessed for readability and ideally presented at a grade 8 level in Australia to increase accessibility across the community. (The documents analysed for the study had an average readability of grade 13 which is regarded as very difficult to read for many adults).

The response of Australian governments to the COVID-19 pandemic to date has been commendable. Clearly, however, there is much work to be done to better communicate key health messages to ensure the majority of Australians can understand and respond appropriately. In fact, the successful roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines to the population will depend on it.

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