Canadians turn first and foremost to their family physician for health related information. On average, they consult five different print sources (internet, libraries). A recent report by the Canadian Council on Learning states that older and less educated Canadians – those who also tend to score lower on literacy assessments - use fewer health information sources.
Considering that health information is often written at higher reading levels, it is no surprise that this has health consequences for individuals who struggle with literacy.
They make fewer attempts to learn about their health issues, and are more likely to report poor health and suffer from chronic disease. They also report a lack of knowledge about managing their health and tend not to engage in disease prevention behaviour (Health Literacy in Canada, 2008). The Health Literacy In Canada report also found that more than half (60%) of Canadians over the age of 16 do not possess the minimum health literacy skills required to read and understand medication and nutrition labels, give informed consent, or understand safety instructions for equipment and machinery.
The Centre’s Foundations in Family Literacy course has a new module that addresses this issue. The course is offered on line to Alberta Family Literacy practitioners, and is also being delivered in B.C. and Ontario.
The links between health and literacy are significant; they need to be part of any discussions about improving the lives of those with low literacy and the health of all our citizens.
One person's story about health literacy:
"Well, I was stupid, like to stuff like that. OK, you would take a book and you would try to read about emphysema and cancer and all of that. Sometimes there are words there and if you broke it down in your own way – but it may not mean that at all
. . . I went to the library, and little pamphlets that you get at the doctor’s office about it – I found out on my own . . . Now you don’t like to ask, what do you think they are saying? That happens and then they know that you don’t have enough schooling to understand whatever they are saying
. . . You don’t like to say ”well I haven’t got that much schooling; what does this mean?” . . . They don’t use plain words."
(from the Health Literacy in Rural Nova Scotia research project)