Frequently Asked Questions
About Health Literacy
What is health literacy?
Health literacy is the ability to access, understand and act on information for health.
What is the difference between health literacy and literacy?
Health literacy is closely related to literacy, but focuses specifically on health information demands. Health literacy requires the ability to solve problems, evaluate information and know when to take action.
Is health literacy important?
Research shows that both literacy and health literacy are linked with health outcomes. Low levels of literacy and health literacy restrict participation in society and the economy. National surveys indicate that 48% of adults over age 16 have low literacy skills and the CPHA’s Expert Panel on Health Literacy believes even more adults have low health literacy.
Who is most at risk for low health literacy?
People over age 65, recent immigrants and those with low income, low education or low capacity in English or French are most likely to have low levels of health literacy, according to the Panel.
Why are seniors vulnerable?
Canadian research estimates up to 88% of people over age 65 cannot cope on their own with modern health information demands. Education levels were not as high in the past as they are today. Plus, cognitive function usually declines with age. By age 65, 85% of women and 77% of men also have at least one chronic health condition. Demographic projections indicate seniors will make up an increasing proportion of our population in the future.
Why are immigrants at risk?
Some newcomers to Canada may have trouble with health information demands because of problems speaking and understanding English or French. They could have high health literacy skills in their mother tongue, but problems coping in the Canadian context because of difficulties with language but not literacy. For an estimated 32% of foreign-born women and 24% of foreign-born men, a lack of basic literacy skills is another factor. Cultural practices and expectations that differ from Canadian norms can also contribute to communication challenges in the health context.
What can be done?
CPHA’s Expert Panel on Health Literacy recommends a two-pronged national health literacy strategy for increasing health literacy skills and making health systems more sensitive and response to issues of language, culture and literacy. Health systems can contribute to better outcomes by reducing information demands. Research shows that societies gain on many levels when gaps in health outcomes, socioeconomic status, education and literacy are reduced.