Literacy hotline hit with calls about ‘confusing’ vaccine information

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A national literacy hotline has been hit with calls from people struggling to make sense of challenging public health messages about COVID-19 as health authorities roll out easy-to-read resources to boost vaccination rates.

The Reading Writing Hotline has recorded a spike in calls during the pandemic from people struggling to make sense of changing rules and advice, with doctors warning the problem is contributing to lower vaccination among people struggling to decipher health jargon.

“A lot of health messaging is written at a very high level and is unnecessarily complicated,” hotline manager Vanessa Iles said.

Plain English vaccination information is not always easy to find.

“It needs a rewrite so that everyone can actually understand, with simpler words and shorter phrasing … Lack of inclusive messaging places people at real risk.”

The hotline, funded by the federal government to help the three million Australian adults with low literacy, received 46 per cent more calls for help in the five months to October compared to the previous five months.

Ms Iles said callers were struggling to navigate the process of getting the jab.

“Some are very motivated and keen to get vaccinated,” she said.

“One guy had his first vaccine and went to get the second one, but he couldn’t get through the system. You scan the QR code and up pop all these incredibly complex questions … There was no one there that could give you the information verbally.”

While health authorities have commissioned easy to read fact sheets on COVID-19 vaccination, Ms Iles said they were not easily available and people were still being handed dense, two-page printouts and asked to fill out complicated forms.

She said the problem was not a fringe issue, pointing to Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing 44 per cent of adults had a low level of literacy.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price said Australians with poor literacy were being “left behind” in the race to vaccinate the nation.

On Friday, 90 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over — 18.6 million people — had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 17 million (83 per cent) were fully vaccinated.

“In that 10 per cent who are not vaccinated, they’re not all anti-vaxxers,” Dr Price said. “There are people who have specific needs.”

Under the Australian Core Studies Framework, literacy is assessed across five bands, with 14 per cent of the population at level one, the lowest, and 30 per cent at level two.

For these people, Ms Iles said, participating in work and community life was difficult, with many relying on help from family, friends or colleagues to make sense of written information.

“That makes the complex health language and messages we are seeing very hard to comprehend,” she said.

“Not everybody has someone they can ask for help and say: ‘I can’t read this.’ People are embarrassed.”

A spokesperson for the federal health department said the high overall vaccination rate showed official messaging “is having a significant impact” and $10 million was being given to primary health networks for vaccination, boosting initiatives such as pop-up clinics and home visits.

“The Department of Health will continue to tailor communications to all audiences to ensure that getting a COVID-19 vaccine is easy and accessible for all,” the spokesperson said, saying the department had worked “to simplify complex health information” across all communications channels.

“The department is working to ensure vulnerable groups are able to get vaccinated as soon as possible, including culturally and linguistically diverse audiences.”

A NSW Health spokesperson said the state government had created easy to read documents to complement those commissioned by the federal government and aimed to ensure all health information was at a year 6 six to eight school readability level or below.

A Victorian health department spokesperson said the state government was working to ensure people could access plain English information.

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