Canadian scholars
Engaging ideas, transforming minds
Engaging ideas, transforming minds

Health literacy is essential to understanding information about health, making healthy lifestyle choices, and receiving care. To celebrate National Nursing Week 2014, we interviewed professors Laurie Hoffman-Goetz (University of Waterloo), Lorie Donelle (Western University), and Ruhksana Ahmed (University of Ottawa), authors of our new book Health Literacy in Canada, about the crucial role of health literacy in sustaining the health of all Canadians.

What was the intent of writing this book?

"Health Literacy in Canada was written in response to the limited literature/resources regarding health literacy from a distinctly Canadian perspective. Much of the pioneering work in the area of health literacy has been done by Canadian researchers (such as Dr. Irving Rootman, who wrote the Foreword), and we wanted to showcase the important work that has been done. At the same time, we wanted to recognize and address the important collaborative developments around the world on the topic of health literacy. Mostly, we felt the need to highlight the current and growing concerns about health literacy skills and the health of Canadians, given that individuals with limited health literacy skills often have difficulty effectively managing their own health, are challenged in accessing health services, and find it difficult to understand health information to make informed health-related decisions.

As educators, researchers, and practitioners, we recognize the significance of literacy and health literacy skills within contemporary healthcare. The high prevalence of chronic diseases and the associated expectations that people will participate in self-health promotion is predicated, in part, on their literacy and health literacy abilities. The other ‘game changer’ with regard to health literacy has been the relative ease of access to information via the Internet. The ability to access, understand, appraise, and communicate health information constitutes fundamental skills for people to take an active role in promoting and maintaining their own health.

This book was written to provide students, educators, and practitioners involved with public health, health education, and health care a resource that consolidates the current theory, research, and interventions regarding health literacy in Canada. Different from other texts, we contextualize health literacy within a public health/health promotion frame, specifically attending to the often-neglected aspects of social justice, equity, and culture."

The beginning chapter defines health literacy as a “human rights and social justice issue.” What does this mean for Canadian citizens?

"The research is clear: individuals who are able to access and understand health information tend to have better self-care practices, improved disease-state knowledge, greater coping skills, and they engage in healthier lifestyles. Current evidence indicates that 60% of Canadian adults have limited health literacy skills, and older adults, immigrants, people with low socio-economic status, and First Nations/Inuit/Métis peoples exhibit even poorer health literacy skills compared to the rest of Canadians. Adequate health literacy skills for individuals, and recognition of the importance that health literacy skills play in navigating health care systems, helps to create a context of fair and equitable access to health information and services."

As professors, your teaching disciplines differ. How has a combination of expertise affected the goal of addressing health literacy through a lens of intersectional theory?

"Health is influenced by multiple factors—the research evidence clearly indicates that the health of individuals, communities, and societies is shaped by multiple and intersecting factors. It is from this understanding that we collaborated in the development, design, and content of this text using an interdisciplinary and intersectoral approach."

As digital technologies become more sophisticated, how are processes of health literacy affected?

"The Internet has become one of the most significant resources for health information and services. More and more individuals are engaging in online social networking, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, [all of which] constitute new channels of communication (e.g., consumer reviews, videos, blogs, or podcasts) that guide information-seekers to health information, services, and support resources. However, individuals with low literacy and/or health literacy skills are less likely to navigate the Internet and/or to obtain and understand the information available online. [Not only] is this is a concern in terms of health outcomes for people with limited literacy but also as an issue of social justice in terms of equitable access to information and services that shape the health of all Canadians."

What can readers expect from this publication?

"Readers can expect to be challenged regarding their ideas and thoughts about health and health literacy. The text provides an overview of health literacy theories and frameworks, positions health literacy as a key social determinant of health, illustrates how health literacy informs our understanding of information in the media with regard to public health emergencies, and highlights the milestones of Canadian work and research. More so than other resources on health literacy, this text will help individuals, clinicians, and those who manage health care organizations to understand the significance of culture and information technologies in shaping our access to health information, services, and needed social supports."