A 2007 Canadian study found that 60 per cent of adults (and 88 per cent of seniors) lacked the ability to obtain, understand and act on health information such as taking prescription drugs as instructed or preparing for a medical procedure such as a colonoscopy.
"People who come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds have challenges with health literacy generally but then they have the added issue of language – English isn't their first language – so it's a double whammy, if you will."
And it's not just newcomers, he added. People over 50 in general are less likely to understand instructions for their care.
"You can improve the knowledge and improve the self-management and significantly reduce the health care costs," said Poureslami in a telephone interview Thursday, "with culturally and linguistically relevant material."
Many health authorities are already producing information in a variety of languages and it's of particular urgency for chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and respiratory disease.
There have been many surveys that show higher levels of education are linked to better health, but no one really knows why. It could be that people with more education generally have higher incomes and are more able to fill expensive prescriptions, for instance.
Aboriginal Canadians are another key group with higher rates of chronic health problems, but are less likely to rate at the lowest level of health literacy compared to new Canadians from China and South Asia.
Research conducted in the Metro Vancouver by Fitzgerald and Iraj Poureslami, a research scientist in respiratory medicine at UBC, found that Punjabi, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers with asthma were better able to understand their condition and follow the doctor's orders for using an inhaler if they watched a video in their own language, made by members of their own ethnic group.
The meeting of about 33 experts from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. concludes Saturday with public lectures on health literacy and heart and lung disease from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, 6476 Northwest Marine Drive on the UBC campus.