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Understanding how health literacy impacts your health

Canada’s universal health care system ensures that all Canadians receive quality care, no matter where they live in the country. You receive automatic coverage at birth and continue to receive it no matter your job or income. We are lucky to live in a country where our health care system puts its citizens first.

Canada’s health care system helps create social solidarity and national pride. It also contributes to better life expectancy, lower obesity rates and decreased infant mortality compared to the United States, all while spending less per capita.

But even with an overall high-quality health care system, not all Canadians enjoy good health. Six in 10 Canadian adults cannot adequately manage their health, and senior Canadians and Canadian adults with less than a high school diploma are even more at risk. Racial and ethnic minorities, non-native English speakers, people in poor health, and those with low socioeconomic status find it especially difficult to navigate their health care needs.

There’s a clear relationship between your health literacy level and the health you enjoy. Here’s what you should know about health literacy, including some of the most impactful ways literacy can impact your health.

What is Health Literacy?

Being able to get the health information you need, understand the information, and make decisions based on the information. This skill set, known as health literacy, helps us promote and maintain good health in various settings across our lifespan.

Having strong health literacy skills allows us to use critical thinking to help sort through vast amounts of health information, filtering out anything suspect or unhelpful.

When you have health literacy skills, you can seek accurate health information and services, make appropriate health decisions, and better manage the health of yourself and your family.

Health Literacy in Canada

When we require medical attention, health literacy helps us advocate for ourselves. We can accurately describe our symptoms to health care professionals, leading to a faster diagnosis. Understanding and evaluating treatment options and communicating that information to loved ones is also easier.

We can also correctly follow medication recommendations and health protocols to keep ourselves safe. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in hysteria, panic and confusion due to the high number of fake news stories. Those who had stronger health literacy skills were better able to identify trustworthy health sources, recognize the severity of the situation, and understand how their choices could protect themselves and those around them.

Being health literate is essential not only for our health but for the health of all Canadians. Strong health literacy skills may be the answer to containing system-wide health costs, preventing illness and chronic disease, and lowering accident and death rates.

How Health Literacy Impacts Us

Health literacy is an essential life skill that helps in numerous medical-related situations.

Seeking Medical Care

Navigating the Canadian health care system to find an appropriate doctor or service requires health literacy, just like sharing personal information with health care providers does. Once we arrive at a medical office or hospital emergency room, being health literate helps us complete complicated paperwork and describe our health symptoms more accurately – leading to a more efficient diagnosis.

We can take more responsibility for our health, advocate for the care of our family members, and communicate our health care needs and preferences to medical professionals. This helps build resilience amongst communities while reducing the cost of our health care system.

Health literacy also allows us to make objective, thoughtful and intelligent decisions about health services, medical facilities, self-care, and other aspects related to our health condition. We can also interpret statistics about the risks and benefits of a treatment, which creates more knowledgeable decision-making. Although a medical professional can provide advice, most medical choices are collaborative, requiring health literacy from the patient.

Comprehending medical concepts such as risk or recurrence and cost-benefit ratios is only possible with a high level of health literacy.

Understanding Medical Paperwork

No matter what medical professional we see, there will always be some type of paperwork to complete. Without literacy skills, we won’t be equipped to read and sign consent forms, fill out new patient paperwork or complete private insurance documentation.

After seeing a medical professional for an appointment or test, we’ll need health literacy skills to complete any necessary follow-up. If a prescription is given, health literacy skills are required to understand the medication instructions and to follow dosage amounts properly.

If we’re being discharged following a hospital stay, we’ll need to sign discharge paperwork and follow at-home instructions – such as knowing what signs to look for to re-seek medical care.

If we have a health condition involving complex self-care, health literacy skills make management more effortless.

Leading Healthier Lives

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), those with limited health literacy skills experience riskier health choices and participate less in health promotion and disease-detection activities.

Lower health literacy rates are also linked to increased hospitalization, morbidity, premature death and work-related accidents. Individuals with low literacy may be more likely to get diabetes, experience high blood pressure and have cardiovascular disease. These diseases require ongoing management, modifying behaviour and communicating core health knowledge – difficult tasks when there’s a lack of health literacy.

Having effective health literacy skills helps us make healthier lifestyle choices. When we can read and understand the nutritional content on labels at grocery stores, we have the information necessary to select more nutritious options. Health literacy makes us more comfortable navigating information online, such as researching home remedies for common ailments and finding healthy recipes and workout plans.

Celebrate Health Literacy Month

The stronger our health literacy skills are, the more confident we’ll be in managing our health and our family’s health. We can prevent health problems, protect our health and better control health problems if they occur.

This October, as we celebrate Health Literacy Month, increase your health literacy skills with the help of our ABC Health Matters program. This workbook and workshop teaches the foundational knowledge necessary to better understand health issues and navigate our health care system more efficiently.

Download the workbooks from our website, take the free online course, or reach out to us for further information about any of our literacy programs.