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Improving Health Literacy to Curb COVID-19 Transmission

Illustration of various hands holding electronics with COVID-19 written on the screens
Illustration of various hands holding electronics with COVID-19 written on the screens

Ian Culbert

Executive Director, Canadian Public Health Association

Our vision of a health-literate Canada is a country in which everyone has the capacity, opportunities, and support they need to use health information effectively and to act as informed partners in their care. Unfortunately, we know that many people in Canada lack the level of literacy required to function well in relation to the information demands of “normal” life, let alone during a global pandemic.

Social media have become important hubs for sharing health information. A major challenge is that not all information shared on these networks is credible, leading to the spread of incorrect information. People with low levels of health literacy may be less capable of differentiating between credible, evidence-based information and misinformed opinions, particularly since these misinformed opinions often touch on personal experiences and beliefs.

Social media networks have allowed unsubstantiated theories to circulate about the sources of COVID-19, its transmission, susceptibility, prevention strategies, treatments, and even potential vaccines. This has increased everyone’s risk of COVID-19, but data shows that some populations with lower health literacy rates have higher rates of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

While we urgently need policies, practices, and programs to raise health literacy levels in order to improve population health and reduce health care costs, these are longer-term initiatives. In order to curb the spread of COVID-19 today, health officials need to continue to repeat their core messages in plain language and follow some simple rules:

  • Use facts. Credible information can help change people’s minds.
  • Make it interesting. Provide information in a digestible, straightforward manner.
  • Be kind. Avoid aggressive language and be authentic.
  • Be memorable. It might help them change their mind in the future.
  • Use your own story. Let them know that you understand how they feel.
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