Determinants of Health

3. Education

Canadians with low literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed and poor, to suffer poorer health and to die earlier than Canadians with high levels of literacy.1

Better education often leads to better jobs, better housing and better health. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, education gives people the knowledge and skills to figure out problems in life. Education also adds to a sense of control in our lives, making us feel stronger about being able to work through challenges.

Education and literacy make it easier for people to get information – and understand what it means. This kind of knowledge can help keep us healthy. However, clear, targeted information about women and HIV is often hard to find.

The medical terms describing HIV, how it is monitored and how it is treated can be overwhelming – too difficult for many people to understand. Sometimes, the same can be said for information dealing with HIV protection.

The Centre for Literacy of Quebec believes that perhaps 50% of adult Canadians struggle to understand everyday reading materials. These difficulties could be as a result of:

  • lack of education
  • visual, hearing or cognitive impairment
  • language or cultural differences

People living with any of these issues are marginalized in a complex health-care system. The centre argues that, “Successful health communication can occur when barriers to the process are recognized and appropriate tools are used to minimize the difficulties.”2

A study of literacy and health challenges done by the Centre for Literacy and the Department of Nursing of the McGill University Health Centre found the following:

  • Most people with literacy challenges who participated in the study found that written documents were not useful. However, this is one of the most common ways health information is communicated.
  • Health-care professionals have their own sense of the health education needs when it comes to people with literacy challenges who are accessing the health-care system.
  • Family members want information that is different than what is given to loved ones who are being treated.
  • Family members and caregivers are interpreters, readers and mediators when there are barriers to communication.

There are other ways to spread the word about health. Writing in plain language, producing podcasts or DVDs and creating interactive media or visuals are a few of those options.

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1What Makes Canadians Healthy or Unhealthy?, Underlying Premises and Evidence Table, Public Health Agency of Canada, online as of June 2011
2Health Literacy, Phase 1, The Centre for Literacy of Quebec, 1999-2000