Literacy impacts our health

Literacy impacts our health

If you want to find out how to improve your health and well-being, head over to Ècole Sir John Franklin School this weekend to the NWT Wellness Conference.  The NWT Literacy Council will be there, along with about 400 other participants.

As a literacy council we’re interested in wellness, because the overall health literacy in Canada is low, and it’s even lower in the NWT. Almost 60% of our population has low literacy levels.

Percent distribution of NWT health literacy proficiency levels, adult population (16 and over), 2003 (Source: Canadian Council on Learning)

Literacy and education are on the list of key health determinants. The higher a person’s education level, the better their health will be. According to the Canadian Council on Learning (2007), people with low health literacy are 2.5 times more likely to be in fair or poor health.

As an example of health literacy we often refer to people’s ability to read labels on medicine bottles or other written information.  Did you know, for example, that most health-related materials are written at reading levels above high school graduation reading skills? (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007).  Given our high school graduation rate, that puts a lot of health information out of the reach of many people in the NWT.

Health literacy, however, involves much more than reading labels. It’s involves:

Health promotion: People are able to find, access and use information to enable them to make appropriate decisions to maintain their basic health, such as buying healthy food.

Health protection: People are able to get and understand the information they need to keep themselves safe, such as firearm safety, or drinking and driving.

Disease prevention: People are able to take action to prevent or minimize health issues, such as stopping smoking or understanding test results.

Health care maintenance: People are able to explain their health needs to health care workers and can follow their instructions, such as reading the labels on medicine bottles!

System navigation: People are able to understand what health services are available and are able to access them as needed.

A number of years ago, the NWT Literacy Council hired a young family literacy trainee. When she became pregnant, she had some health issues, which ultimately caused her death.  Like many other people in the NWT, she struggled to access and understand health services.  At the Council, her experience really brought home to us the importance of supporting people to develop good health literacy.  Together, we can do something about it.

See you at the NWT Wellness Conference 2014.

-- Helen Balanoff

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