Images on health websites can lessen comprehension, study finds

August 28, 2012 by Sharita Forrest
The health care industry needs to think carefully about the types of pictures used to illustrate patient education web sites, since older adults’ comprehension can be negatively impacted by irrelevant material, suggests a new study co-authored by Daniel Morrow, a faculty member in the College of Education and in the Beckman Institute. Photo: L. Brian Stauffer

(Medical Xpress)—Photos of happy, smiling faces on patient education websites may engage readers, but they also may have a negative impact on older adults' comprehension of vital health information, especially those elderly patients who are the least knowledgeable about their medical condition to begin with, suggests a new study.

The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, used eye-tracking software to measure the attentional processes of 41 adults, ages 62 or older, while they read multimedia passages about hypertension on computer monitors. The passages, which were adapted from material found on the NIH-funded website MedlinePlus, comprised one paragraph of text and two pictures: one picture relevant to the text content, such as an illustration of a blood vessel, and an irrelevant picture, such as a photo of people. After reading and viewing the material, participants answered questions about hypertension that were based upon the information presented.

On average, the participants had been diagnosed with hypertension more than 11 years prior to the study and had health literacy consistent with their . However, their knowledge about , self-care and other facets of hypertension—as measured by a 37-item questionnaire—varied widely.

All participants spent more time examining the text than the pictures. However, participants approached the material very differently depending upon their pre-existing level of knowledge about hypertension, the researchers found.

"People who better understood the passages and already knew a lot about hypertension were more systematic in how they extracted new information," said lead author Dan Morrow, a professor of in the College of Education and in the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. "They read through the text once with little interruption, then wrapped up and consolidated that information by looking at the relevant photo."

Participants with more health knowledge spent more time fixating on the text than viewing the pictures on their first pass, and did most of their picture viewing after reading the text once and presumably developing an initial understanding of the information. After they had read through the first time, the more knowledgeable participants spent more time than their counterparts examining the relevant picture.

Participants with less knowledge about hypertension tended to distribute their picture viewing throughout the exercise and spent more time viewing the irrelevant picture and re-reading the text.

Older adults who already are knowledgeable about a topic may be more likely to benefit from viewing relevant pictures, perhaps because the pictures help reinforce information that they already have in working memory, Morrow said.

Designing effective educational media is becoming increasingly important because the U.S. care system is placing greater responsibility on patients for self-care of chronic illnesses such as , Morrow said.

"We have to think carefully about how to design patient education materials," Morrow said. "If they are directly relevant, pictures can be helpful and provide an alternative way of obtaining information. If pictures are irrelevant, there may be a cost to that. We need to understand how we can improve comprehension and devise educational strategies for who have less ."

The study appeared recently in the journal Visual Communication.

Explore further: Nearly 1 in 5 young adults has high blood pressure, study shows

Related Stories

Nearly 1 in 5 young adults has high blood pressure, study shows

May 25, 2011
The number of young adults in the United States with high blood pressure may be much higher than previously reported, according to a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Recommended for you

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

US antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—The number of Americans who say they've taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, a new government survey finds.

Child's home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

August 15, 2017
Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that ...

Obesity and depression are entwined, yet scientists don't know why

August 15, 2017
About 15 years ago, Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, started noticing a pattern. People came to see her because they were depressed, but they frequently had a more visible ailment as well: They were heavy.

Givers really are happier than takers

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—Generosity really is its own reward, with the brain seemingly hardwired for happiness in response to giving, new research suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.