NIDA's Cathrine Sasek: Drug Abuse Information in Plain Language

Mar 15, 2012, 3:53 PM, Posted by

file Cathrine Sasek, National Institute on Drug Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently launched an easy-to-read website on drug abuse designed for adults with a low reading literacy level (eighth grade or below). The site provides plain language information on drug abuse prevention and treatment and has a simple design with large text size, videos and other features that make it easy to read and use.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Cathrine Sasek, PhD, Science Education Coordinator of the National Institute on Drug Abuse about the new site.

NewPublicHealth: Why is it so important to create materials specifically for low literacy populations?

Cathrine Sasek: We know that drug abuse and drug addiction span all segments of the population, yet the information that’s available on the science of addiction, which includes information on treatment and prevention, is not geared for people with low literacy. So this means that there is a segment of the population that doesn’t have good access to really good scientific information on the problem of drug abuse.

NPH: The topic of drug abuse can include some fairly complex ideas. How does the site help explain those?

Cathrine Sasek: We really worked to design the site so that it addresses both the general low literacy issues as well as the low health literacy issues surrounding drug abuse and the biology of drug abuse. Probably a good example of this a portion of the text that tells users that abuse of pain killers can put them into a coma. In the next sentence we say, “That’s when nothing can wake you up.” So we, within the text, define coma. That helps improve not just literacy, but medical and drug abuse literacy. I think that there are certainly an awful lot of words, and coma is just one of them, that you and I use all the time and don’t think about them. I think that the medical profession also doesn’t think about them. They assume everyone knows what a coma is when, in fact, maybe not everybody does. We do that on the site with many other words as well, that the medical community may take for granted everyone understands, when they don’t.

NPH: What research do you have showing that the site is accessible to the people who need it most?

Cathrine Sasek: We started looking at this during the development of the site. We conducted focus groups and usability testing with people who have low literacy throughout the development of the project. We met with them to find out what sorts of things they would find useful in the site, and their feedback was extraordinarily useful to us. Since the site was released, we have had indication that people who need it will have access to the site either on their own, in their own home, or through other sources, and we know that there are a lot of relevant organizations who will be promoting the site. Having said that, though, I think that it would be helpful for us to do a study that is geared towards determining whether we got it right.

NPH: Do you think the site might be a valuable tool to be used in a classroom setting or even in a rehabilitation facility setting, where rather than just an individual is using it on their own, it might be with an instructor who can help with the navigation?

Cathrine Sasek: That’s interesting that you should bring that up because we do anticipate and actually hope that this will be used in places like centers where they are teaching reading, for instance. We’re anticipating that it’s going to have a broader use than what we originally thought about for it.

In interviews with adult education professionals, they talked about one of their teaching techniques of using a pretest before introducing a new subject to adult learners. So to assess adults’ knowledge of a subject they create a fun quiz. We use the quiz technique on the website. And we’re hoping that adult education professionals will find that useful in introducing adult learners to the website.

We also included two videos and in one of those we use a metaphor to help people understand how their brain works. We say your brain is like a control tower. So, we use imagery to convey that concept as natural waves and then we show disrupted waves to show how that control aspect of your brain can be disrupted with drugs. The idea was that we didn’t need words to convey that message.

NPH: What other efforts do you have in the works to help reach low literacy consumers?

Cathrine Sasek: NIDA recognizes the importance of really getting our information out to all members of society, and this is regardless of their literacy level. Some of the things that we’re considering doing—and of course all of this depends on budget—include programs for MP3 players or cell phones to address those people without access to a computer. We hope to expand the site and translate it into Spanish. We have a lot of ideas, but not anything definitely planned. We need to see how the site does and get some ideas of whether we did this right and then go from there.

Interestingly, since we released the site last week, we’ve received input that indicates that it is also useful to people who don’t have low literacy. I think that developing a clear, concise website that doesn’t talk down to people appeals to a really broad segment of the population.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.