Background. Medical information pamphlets often are written using language that requires a reading level higher than parents of many pediatric patients have achieved. Anecdotal reports suggest that many parents may not readily understand the federally mandated Public Health Service vaccine information pamphlets prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1991. The level at which the pamphlets need to be written for low-reading-level parents is undetermined, as is whether parents reading at higher levels will accept low-reading-level materials.
Methods. To determine whether a simple pamphlet prepared at a low reading level using qualitative and adult education techniques would be preferable to the available CDC polio vaccine information pamphlet, we conducted an integrated qualitative-quantitative study. We compared the parent reading time and comprehension of a simplified pamphlet (Louisiana State University, LSU) comprising 4 pages, 322 words, 7 instructional graphics, and a text requiring a 6th grade reading ability with the equivalent 1991 CDC vaccine information pamphlet comprising 16 pages, 18,117 words, no graphics, and a text requiring a 10th grade reading level. We measured the reading ability of 522 parents of pediatric patients from northwest Louisiana seen at public clinics (81%) and in a private office (19%). Of the entire group, 39% were white, 60% African-American, and 1% Hispanic; the mean age was 29 years; the mean highest grade completed was 12th grade 3 months; and the reading level was less than 9th grade in 47% of parents and less than 7th grade in 20%. After parents were given one of the pamphlets to read, their reading time, comprehension, and attitude toward the pamphlet were measured.
Results. Mean comprehension was 15% lower for CDC than for LSU (56% vs 72% correct; P < .001) and reading time was three times longer for CDC than for LSU (13 minutes 47 seconds vs 4 minutes 20 seconds; P < .0001). These trends were significant for parents reading at all but the lowest levels. Mean comprehension and reading time did not differ among parents reading at the third grade level or less. However, mean comprehension was greater and reading time lower for LSU among parents at all reading abilities greater than the third grade. Parents in the private practice setting took the longest time to read the CDC (20 minutes 59 seconds vs 5 minutes 46 seconds, LSU), yet their comprehension on the LSU was significantly higher than on the CDC (94% vs 71%; P < .0001). Two focus groups of high-income parents were unanimous in preferring the LSU.
Conclusions. A short, simply written pamphlet with instructional graphics was preferred by high- and low-income parents seen in private and public clinics. The sixth grade reading level appears to be too high for many parents in public clinics; new materials aimed at third to fourth grade levels may be required. The new 1994 CDC immunization materials, written at the eighth grade level, may still be inappropriately high. The American medical community should adopt available techniques for the development of more effective patient-parent education materials.