Coronavirus (1070) Readability of online COVID-19 health information

15 November, 2020

Dear HIFA colleagues,

Interesting paper from BMC Public Health. As we have discussed before here on HIFA, I am convinced that 'supply-side' approaches can improve the intelligibility of content and the ability of people to differentiate reliable from unreliable information. More can and should be done to explore, promote and support such approaches.

CITATION: Readability of online COVID-19 health information: a comparison between four English speaking countries

Amy P. Worrall, Mary J. Connolly, Aine O’Neill, Murray O’Doherty, Kenneth P. Thornton, Cora McNally, Samuel J. McConkey & Eoghan de Barra

BMC Public Health volume 20, Article number: 1635 (2020)


Background: The internet is now the first line source of health information for many people worldwide. In the current Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic, health information is being produced, revised, updated and disseminated at an increasingly rapid rate. The general public are faced with a plethora of misinformation regarding COVID-19 and the readability of online information has an impact on their understanding of the disease. The accessibility of online healthcare information relating to COVID-19 is unknown. We sought to evaluate the readability of online information relating to COVID-19 in four English speaking regions: Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, and compare readability of website source provenance and regional origin.

Methods: The Google® search engine was used to collate the first 20 webpage URLs for three individual searches for ‘COVID’, ‘COVID-19’, and ‘coronavirus’ from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The Gunning Fog Index (GFI), Flesch-Kincaid Grade (FKG) Score, Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES), Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (SMOG) score were calculated to assess the readability.

Results: There were poor levels of readability webpages reviewed, with only 17.2% of webpages at a universally readable level. There was a significant difference in readability between the different webpages based on their information source (p < 0.01). Public Health organisations and Government organisations provided the most readable COVID-19 material, while digital media sources were significantly less readable. There were no significant differences in readability between regions.

Conclusion: Much of the general public have relied on online information during the pandemic. Information on COVID-19 should be made more readable, and those writing webpages and information tools should ensure universal accessibility is considered in their production. Governments and healthcare practitioners should have an awareness of the online sources of information available, and ensure that readability of our own productions is at a universally readable level which will increase understanding and adherence to health guidelines.


Best wishes, Neil

Coordinator, WHO-HIFA Collaboration: HIFA project on COVID-19

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - ), a global community with more than 20,000 members in 180 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages in collaboration with WHO. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: