Skip to main content
Caring for kids new to Canada

A guide for health professionals working with immigrant and refugee children and youth

Health Literacy

What is it, and why does it matter?

Health literacy affects people’s ability to make informed decisions that lead to good health. It involves the ability to access and use information, and is distinct from general literacy.

People with low health literacy may have difficulty interpreting medication labels and health messages, use emergency rooms and are hospitalized more often, be less likely to get the flu vaccine, and more likely to report their health as poor (source: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality).

While there are several definitions of health literacy (see, for example, World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control), the Public Health Agency of Canada uses this one:

“[Health literacy is] the ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course.”

(A Vision for a Health Literate Canada: Report of the Expert Panel on Health Literacy, Canadian Public Health Association, 2008)

While health literacy is related to a person’s general literacy, it is also affected by language and culture—both their own and that of the health professionals and systems they interact with. People with high literacy skills may have a lower degree of health literacy in a specific context, such as being in a new country or when experiencing a stressful situation.

Health professionals can help improve patients’ health literacy skills by taking steps to ensure the information they provide is appropriate, understood and easy to use. Among the many strategies health professionals can adopt are using plain language and culturally appropriate messages.

By understanding more about health literacy, professionals working with newcomers can ensure that families have the information they need to make sound decisions about their children’s health.

Online training for health professionals

  • Health Literacy in Clinical Practice: One of 6 modules on cultural competence developed by the Hospital for Sick Children, Cultural Competence Education Initiative. Other modules include cross-cultural communication and refugee and immigrant health.
  • Health Literacy for Public Health Professionals: Centers for Disease Control (U.S.)
  • Ask Me 3: A patient education program designed to improve communication between patients and health care providers, developed by the U.S. National Patient Safety Foundation.


Last updated: July, 2019