Health Literacy – Taking Control of Your Health

Date:  January 13, 2016


Health Literacy – Taking Control of Your Health

Doctor (30s) discussing information on digital tablet with female patient (40s).

What is health literacy? “The cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health1” (WHO, 1998). Essentially, health literacy is our ability to understand and use information to make appropriate decisions about our health. Often in partnership with our family, healthcare providers and community organizations, we have a large role to play in the management of our health. However, at times it can be challenging to find and understand information that could allow us to better manage conditions and improve our overall health. In fact, many Canadians are unaware of this challenge, and we want to bring awareness to the importance of “health literacy”.

Studies have shown that low health literacy is related to an increased number of hospitalizations, unnecessary use of emergency care, and greater risk of mortality in seniors. Furthermore, it is said that poor health literacy may impact our ability to use strategies for preventing disease and decrease our compliance in taking prescribed medication2.

Health literacy in everyday living:

  • The concept of health literacy highlights the strong relationship between health status and learning. In fact, learning about our bodies and health should start at a young age and should continue to develop as we age. Those who have a greater awareness tend to have better health status.
  • Health literacy impacts our ability to take control of our own health, including managing the demands of our daily life where we live, learn, work, or play.
  • Enhancing our health literacy requires us to develop knowledge about various areas including the human body itself, the impact of health behaviours, and the workings of the healthcare system.
  • Our level of health literacy can be highly influenced by a number of factors such as language, age, socio-economic status, cultural background, past experiences, cognitive abilities and mental health. These factors contribute to how we communicate, understand and integrate new health information.

Our challenge is not a lack of information as it seems to be abundant. In fact, at times, the amount of information can be overwhelming, and without the skills or knowledge to triage through it, Canadians may have difficulty making important decisions in their lives. Making sense of the information is essential to better management of our own health.

Here are a few strategies to to improve your level of health literacy3:

  • Seek out opportunities to learn more about your health.
  • Ask questions! If you do not understand the information, do not hesitate to ask your healthcare provider to clarify. They will be happy to help you navigate through the information.
  • Repeat the information to your healthcare provider. They can clarify any area that you might have misunderstood or give additional context to the information so it can apply to you.
  • If communicating with your healthcare provider is challenging, ask for an interpreter or bring along a family member to help record and interpret the information provided.
  • Ask your provider to review the instructions for home care activities (i.e. prescriptions, supplements, exercises, etc.) so that you can record and ask questions as needed.

In 2016, take the opportunity to talk with your healthcare providers about your health and ask questions to help develop your health literacy skills. The knowledge that you gain will not only help you better prevent and manage conditions, but you can then act as a valuable resource for your family and community. Health is an important aspect of life, so why not take the necessary measures now to improve your livelihood in the future?

For more information, consult with your chiropractor or physician.

1World Health Organization (1998). Health Promotion Glossary. Geneva: Author.

2Baker, D.W., Wolf, M.S., Feinglass, J., Thompson, J.A., Guzmararian, J.S. & Huang, P.

(2007). Health literacy and mortality among elderly persons. Archives of Internal Medicine, 167(14), 1503–1509

3Navigating the Health Care System (Improving Your Health Literacy)