Health Care Literacy

Health literacy is an essential life skill.  Each day Canadians are asked to make health-related decisions that call for the application of health literacy skills.  For example, a mother may need to decide whether to take her son to the doctor for treatment of an injury. A daughter may need to assist her senior parent to take the correct amount of prescribed medication.  Yet the majority of the adult Canadian population is lacking the health literacy skills needed to promote, maintain and improve their health and the health of their families.

There are many reasons why the need to address health literacy is even more critical today than ever.  There are increasing demands in society to access health information in new ways, such as via the internet, and this can create challenges for patients navigating the health care system.  Increasing rates of chronic diseases in the Canadian population require individuals to manage their own care more than before.

Links to Health Literacy Diagram

What is healthcare literacy?

To be health literate is to be able to access and understand the information required to manage one’s health on a day-to-day basis.

Ideally, a health-literate individual is able to seek and assess the health information required to:

  1. understand and carry out instructions for self-care, including the administering of complex daily medical regimens
  2. plan and achieve the lifestyle adjustments required for improved health
  3. make informed positive health-related decisions
  4. know how and when to access health care when necessary
  5. share health promoting activities with others
  6. address health issues in the community and society.

Benefits to Health Literacy Diagram


Health Literacy Index Diagram



Why is health literacy important?

Anyone can struggle to understand complicated information under stress.

How can I advocate for myself as a patient?

Ask questions if you do not understand. Some examples:

  1. What is my health problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why do I need to do this?

It’s Your Right to Ask! Who needs to ask questions? You do! Everyone has questions about their health. You are not the only one who sometimes finds things confusing. Ask questions to understand how to get better and how to take care.

What if I ask and I still don’t understand? Say, “This is new to me. Please explain again.” Don’t be embarrassed if you still don’t understand. Ask more questions if you want to.

Repeat back instructions to make sure it is what your healthcare provider said.

When possible, have a family member or friend accompany you to appointments. They can:

  1. Remind you what to say
  2. Take notes and get information
  3. Help you understand your health conditions or health concerns
  4. Focus on lifelong learning

How can I improve my Healthcare Literacy?

You can improve your healthcare literacy by practicing reading and writing skills daily (e.g., reading books, newspapers, magazines, letters, notes or e-mails).

Patient Resources