Reading Every Day Helps Keep the Doctor Away

The benefits of reading regularly are endless. But our health? What could reading have to do with how frequently we visit the doctor? It turns out quite a bit, actually.

In fact, a report conducted by the Canadian Council of Learning (CCL) found daily reading to be the greatest determinant in predicting individual health literacy. So does this study suggest that reading makes you healthier? Not exactly, but it does point to a significant correlation – on average, those who read more often are in better health.

This finding pertains to the field of health literacy, which is “skills to enable access, understanding and use of information for health,” as defined by the Canadian Public Health Association. As such, health literacy can encompass everything from taking the correct dosage of a medication, to exercise and healthy eating, to seeking out health services.

Health Literacy is more complex than general literacy. This is also reflected in the CCL study, which shows that 48 percent of Canadians struggle with general literacy, while 60 percent of Canadians have low health literacy. Despite the differences in literacies, it is clear that the numeracy and prose skills involved in general literacy are fundamentally important in people’s ability to grasp often complicated health information.

Here are some other key findings:

  • Six out of ten Canadians do not posses adequate health literacy skills
  • Individuals with low health literacy are found to be 2.5 times more likely to be in only fair or poor health
  • The populations of seniors, immigrants, and the unemployed are most susceptible to inadequate health literacy

These findings are shocking. Take into account the daily struggles faced by individuals with inadequate health literacy and the connection becomes clear.

Health-LitGrocery shopping is a great example. Without the ability to accurately read and understand nutrition labels, how is one supposed to make healthy food choices? Individuals need to be able to understand the implications associated with what they’re eating. How is this possible without the fundamentals of literacy? Well it turns out it isn’t, and that’s exactly what these findings suggest.

A literate society is a healthier society, and for many, the prescription is reading.



Literacy and Health: What can we do?

On the 27th  of November, the Northeast Edmonton Literacy Network hosted a workshop entitled ‘Literacy and Health – What is the Connection?’

The workshop provided an opportunity for health care providers, literacy and community service organizations, and literacy learners to come together to discuss and engage in activities focused on health literacy challenges.

Isabelle Tapp, a CFL learner and literacy advocate, was the first speaker at the workshop. Following her, we heard from Mayor Mandel and Nancy Becker, Health Literacy Consultant from Alberta Health Services.

Isabelle spoke about her own experiences dealing with literacy challenges. She called upon health practitioners to be conscious and more respectful of the health needs of people with low literacy levels by using clear and plain language.

This is Isabelle’s story:

“I’m Isabelle Tapp, a mother of two, and I’m like most of you in the room. And I have a learning problem. One of the things that I became very good at through my life was hiding this problem.

Six years ago, I found a paper about tutoring. I picked up the phone and dialled three numbers and hung up. I did that many times and finally called. My reading is now up here, and my confidence is up here. And because of that confidence I am able to talk to you about how literacy and health are connected.

I didn’t know that cough medicine could last for a long time. I would throw it out after 3 months. I didn’t know that you had to take the whole prescription. I would quit taking the pills when I started to feel better. Nobody told me you had to finish all the pills in the bottle.

Sometimes I hate seeing doctors. When most people go to the doctor for the first time, they just have to worry about being sick and meeting a new person. I had to worry about knowing what it said on my medication bottles. I had to worry about whether to tell them about my problem. And then there are the forms. They hand you a clipboard, and it’s like staring down a long hallway with no end. It’s so embarrassing to have to ask for help.

When this happens, I have to swallow my pride and ask other people for help. I don’t want to ask my family. That’s like asking for money.  Plus, I don’t always want them to know my health issues. I want to have my privacy. I wish so much that it was different.

When my daughter actually told my doctor that I had learning problems, I wish he would have said “I’m glad you told me. I want to help make this easy for you”.  But instead he gave me that look, you know the one, the pat on the shoulder and he rushed out the door. That’s when you sink in the chair, feel small and wish things were different. Sometimes it feels like they think I’m not smart enough to know. I hate that. If they ask if I understand, I just nod and say “yes”. Sometimes they don’t even ask.

I wish they would see me the same as everyone else. I wish they would make sure I understand my health issues. Then I would sit a little higher in the chair (instead of hiding under it). Everyone should understand what’s happening inside their body when they leave the office. No matter how well they read.”

Isabelle is not the only one. Listening to her sharing her frustrations with the health system brought to mind the 60% of adult Canadians (reported by the Canadian Council on Learning in 2003) that lack the necessary skills to manage their health adequately. The questions remains, what can you and I do to make a difference?