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Accessibility Key for Online Patient Education Materials, Websites

April 25, 2019

While healthcare organizations work to make appointments and even their own facilities more accessible, they may also consider measures to make online patient education materials more accessible as well.

After all, patients do like engaging with online medical information. A 2013 study from Pew Research revealed that nearly three-quarters of patients have searched online for medical information. For 46 percent of patients, an online medical information search led to a doctor’s office visit and potentially medical intervention.

But none of that online patient education is effective if not all patients are able to access it, which is sometimes the case for the 8 percent of Medicare beneficiaries who are legally blind and the numerous others with access limitations.

Specifically, patients with minimal to no mobility, with cognitive impairments, or with vision impairments may encounter issues engaging with a healthcare organization’s online website or other online medical resources, according to Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Perkins Access, a digital access consulting service affiliated with Perkins School for the Blind.

“As companies create more inclusive digital properties to improve their customers’ experiences, it’s crucial that accessibility is considered from the outset,” said Luiza Aguiar, executive director of Perkins Solutions. “When digital accessibility is bolted onto existing assets, people with disabilities are more likely to encounter issues and barriers while trying to access information. Spaulding recognizes this and optimizes online engagement for all in its patient-centered site.”

A recent partnership between Spaulding and Perkins resulted in a far more usable patient-facing, online platform for Spaulding.

“As with the opening of the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown in 2013, we aimed to go beyond compliance and set a new standard for inclusive design,” said David Storto, president of Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Partners Continuing Care. “The patients we serve have a wide range of abilities and it is imperative that everyone can access digital information on the care, research, education and advocacy that is so central to what we do. Partnering with Perkins, an organization aligned with us in spirit, to achieve these lofty goals has been a wonderful experience.”

The new website design makes it easier for patients using assistive technology, such as screen readers, to get an accurate reading of the website and to navigate the page. Screen readers are not able to interpret images or command buttons (such as a search button) for patients, making it more difficult to navigate the webpage. Issues with text can also limit screen reader effectiveness.

Spaulding has increased the color contrast on its websites, making text clearer. It has also added meta descriptions to images, which screen readers can then interpret. And by adding descriptions to different command buttons, patients can more easily navigate the online information.

The team worked with a group of patients that are representative of Spaulding’s primary served population, including those with different needs and social experiences. New functionality has been tested on different media such as smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers.

Ideally, these steps will set a standard for accessibility to online patient education resources. Patients who access information about their own health are typically more engaged and make for better patients. Organizations that make their education resources more accessible will likely see an uptick in engagement and, ultimately, in outcomes.

“We are so fortunate to be in a community with amazing organizations such as Perkins Access who can merge their expertise with our efforts to produce something that will truly be a new standard for others to aim for in a digital space,” said Oz Mondejar, Senior Vice President or Mission and Advocacy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. “All of us who were part of this look forward to sharing what we learned and look forward to others following the path we have shown. Because at the end of the day, with millions of people with a disability wanting to participate in our economy and workforce, accessibility is simply just good business.”