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APR 27/2015

The internet's impact on health literacy

First invented in 1990 by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the World Wide Web has had a significant impact that has reached practically all areas of modern life. However, no sector has felt this effect more than healthcare, with the advancement of technology alongside the internet having changed the medical landscape.

Health literacy

One of the most notable ways the internet has changed health is by encouraging medical literacy, new research has claimed. Health literacy, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is the cognitive and social skills needed to access, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.

A study by researchers at the University College of London has highlighted the importance of the role of the internet in helping people maintain a high level of health literacy. Published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, it found that using the internet on a regular basis improved literacy among older adults.

The research, which used data from the Longitudinal Study of Ageing, asked participants to complete computer-assisted, in-person interviews every four years and a nurse-conducted health assessment referred to as a wave.

This latest study focused on the second and fifth wave during the interview stage, where those included in the survey were asked four questions about a fictitious medicine label. In addition, participants were also asked to complete a survey detailing their internet use, including how often they use it and their social engagement levels.

According to the findings, older adults who regularly used the internet were better protected against cognitive decline.

The study reads: “Internet use and engagement in various social activities, in particular cultural activities, appear to help older adults maintain the literacy skills required to self-manage health.”

“These factors appeared to act in an additive fashion, with the more the better for maintaining literacy skills.”

Although further studies need to be conducted to confirm the findings, the researchers state that health literacy is fluid. The study could help medical professionals help patients who are elderly or particularly isolated. The internet can be a useful resource for these vulnerable people but it's important that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to know how to use it properly and not to misdiagnose themselves.

This is where the guidance and experience of medical professionals such as GPs is necessary to ensure patients are using the internet to improve their cognitive health, not as a substitute for proper health consultation.

“As an early longitudinal investigation in this area, our study should bring about several new hypotheses about the social and cognitive processes that influence the dynamics of life at older ages, and how they may be modified,” researchers concluded.

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