Supporting Patients’ Digital Health Literacy

By Rashaad Bhyat

Physical distancing, social circles, contact tracing, R0 numbers…over the past few months, we’ve adapted quickly to a wide range of new terms and concepts in order to stay healthy. For many Canadians, this information is largely new, the COVID-19 pandemic thus highlighting the importance of health literacy.

couple in kitchen, male looks at tablet

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, health literacy refers to how people “access, comprehend, evaluate , communicate” health information. It includes a wide range of skills, from reading and writing, to listening, to numeracy, to critical analysis. For example, a patient might need basic health literacy skills to calculate their vitamin intake from a food product nutrition label, or to follow directions to properly take medication.

But there’s a digital aspect to health literacy as well. As more of our daily living happens online, the ability to navigate digital health tools and services is increasingly important for patients and clinicians alike. What’s more, in addition to a host of new health-related concepts, the pandemic has introduced a suite of digital health tools.

Let’s think about a hypothetical patient and the ways in which they may now be engaging with the health care system. Perhaps, like many Canadians, they use their smartphones in many aspects of their lives – but now, it’s much easier to schedule a virtual visit with their primary care provider, using an app for a secure video call. If a medication is prescribed, their provider might send the prescription digitally to the patient’s pharmacy of choice through an e-prescribing service like PrescribeIT®.

Or perhaps our hypothetical patient has a chronic condition tracked at home through a Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) device. Imagine that they also view their lab results through a patient portal and communicate with their circle of care through a secure messaging system. As our patient accesses this combination of modern tools and modes of communication, a new way of providing care emerges, in which clinicians work with patients to keep them safe at home during challenging times.

As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, virtual care is increasingly becoming part of Canadians’ health care journeys. With patients taking an empowered role to manage their health, it is important to support their digital health literacy. The more comfortable patients feel accessing, using and understanding these new and emerging tools, the more digital health can be used to its full potential.

Of course, this support manifests in different ways. It might mean technical assistance, such as troubleshooting and setting up devices, or perhaps providing guides for patients using virtual care for the first time. It might also mean ensuring that marginalized and vulnerable populations have access to and support for the basic infrastructure underlying virtual care: reliable internet and appropriate devices.

It will almost certainly mean ongoing education, particularly as more Canadians turn to social media for news and information. While there is a wealth of useful health information online, unfortunately there are also many internet sources that are misleading, confusing, or factually incorrect. Even when sources are reputable — as with public health authorities — ongoing public education is still important to help ensure that messages are not misinterpreted, particularly as we prepare for a potential second wave of COVID-19. Ensuring that Canadians can critically analyze health information is an important step towards better health outcomes and improved navigation of a complex health care system.

The flood of new information may feel overwhelming at times, but knowledge can build confidence in learning about and managing one’s own health challenges. With a solid grounding in health literacy, patients will be better prepared to work with their clinicians to advance their health care goals, through COVID-19 and beyond.

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About the author
Rashaad Bhyat

Rashaad Bhyat

Dr. Rashaad Bhyat serves as Clinician Leader on the Engagement team at Canada Health Infoway. He is a family physician with a passion for digital health, advising Infoway on numerous initiatives across Canada since 2011, including virtual care, EMR adoption and optimization, electronic prescribing, remote patient monitoring, and increasing patient access to health records. He currently practices in an EMR-enabled family medicine clinic in the Greater Toronto Area.