Researchers Get $1.4M for Tool to Simplify Health Info

The MIS research team in the UA's Eller College of Management is working to increase health literacy and decrease patient vulnerability.
Nov. 5, 2015
Gondy Leroy
Gondy Leroy

With a four-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, MIS researchers in the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management will create a free online tool that simplifies health care related text, making communication from a person's doctor or medical team easier to understand.

Increasing rates of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, HIV and obesity, require patients to be more involved in their own health care. However, only 12 percent of American adults have proficient health literacy, meaning nearly nine out of 10 adults may lack the skills they need to manage their health, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"When you're diagnosed with a serious disease, you are vulnerable," said Gondy Leroy, principal investigator on the grant and UA associate professor of MIS. "This is partially due to not understanding all relevant information, a problem we can solve with today's technology. We need to increase people's understanding so they're empowered to make proper decisions about their health care."

Leroy is heading up a multidisciplinary research team tasked with increasing health literacy by creating an online writing support tool for medical professionals. Similar to popular editing software, the tool will provide suggestions for replacing difficult terminology, improving awkward expressions, and tuning the flow and structure of the information to make it more understandable for those with little background knowledge on the topic.

The most commonly used tools available today measure the difficulty of medical text using a "readability formula," according to Leroy. This is supposed to make the text more understandable, but there is little evidence showing that this formula helps with rewriting text for improving comprehension and positive health outcomes.

Leroy's team is working on a more effective tool that will be tested through comprehensive user studies to ensure it increases understanding among patients. It will be available in both English and Spanish, and it is slated to be complete by the end of 2019, although earlier, less-sophisticated versions may be made available sooner.

The research team includes David Kauchak in the computer science department at Pomona College in Claremont, California; Patricia Anders in the UA College of Education; Sonia Colina in the UA Department of Spanish and Portuguese; Gail Pritchard in the UA College of Medicine; Debra Revere, in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington; Nicole Yuan in the UA's Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health; and Diane Haeger at El Rio Community Health Center in Tucson.