If your doctor asked you to do this, would you?

health, information, health, informationDo you ever feel going to your doctor’s office is like a factory assembly line? You check in at reception and wait… and wait… as patients are shuffled through doors for their quick 10-minute visit. In and out, in and out.

You know the rule: One problem per visit.


Once you make it to the inner exam room, it’s common to feel anxious or unprepared – even a little frightened. For the most part, people make an appointment with their doctor because something is wrong, and that’s never a pleasant realization.

Have you got your list of questions to ask? Are you even sure about the symptoms you’re experiencing and how to describe them?

You only have so much time with your doctor, so you have to make those minutes count. It’s not their fault, it’s just how the system works. The trouble is, do you even understand what your doctor is talking about? How about the steps you need to take to find relief or start a treatment plan?

For seniors, there’s a very real concern about health literacy – the capacity to obtain, process and understand health information and services that are needed to make the right decisions about your health.

RELATED READING: If you’re eating this, your prostate is at risk

If you’re having trouble, you’re not alone

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion puts the number as high as nine out of every 10 adults having trouble using the everyday health information available from health care centers, retail outlets, media and communities. Seniors, because of their aging bodies are more prone to illness and in need of services, so they’re identified as the most vulnerable when it comes to lack of health literacy.

On top of that, medical information is always changing. There are new treatments, exams, and new evidence constantly coming to light about how medicine works. So what you knew to be true 10 or 20 years ago might be just the opposite today.

Like calcium supplements, for example. For years doctors told women to take their calcium supplements to protect their bones from tissue loss and weakness. Now science has shown calcium from supplements can be harmful and we should focus on getting calcium from our diet only. Who knew?

We can’t all be medical experts, no, but there’s such a push for people to understand what’s current and to be able to advocate for their own health. Limited health literacy is directly associated with poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs. Without a basic level of health literacy, people can’t find the health information they need, adopt healthy behaviors to take care of themselves, or even act on important public health alerts.

A big part of this problem is computer literacy. Like it or not, we live in a digital age. You need to be able to use a computer!

Are you comfortable doing all the work yourself?

How familiar are you with looking up information on the Internet? I’m not talking email or shopping, I mean searching for information about your health. For example how to access physiotherapy services to help manage your pain or recover from a fall.

Or how to better understand what your doctor has told you to do for your digestive problems that he says may be something more serious. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, what’s that?

Or do you need to figure out just what your daughter has been telling you about how to better control your blood sugar or blood pressure?

You really can’t shrug your shoulders and say the internet is just for the young folks.

As companies, services and government agencies move their information online, the ability to use a computer and navigate the internet is a skill you need to have.

Just look at the whole brouhaha over electronic medical records (EMRs), designed to make the system more efficient and accessible. Even the American Medical Association is urging an overhaul of the EMRs because they’re cumbersome and they detract from patient care. Doctors complain they spend too much time on data-entry and not enough time focused on their patients.

RELATED READING: New for seniors…high-dose flu shots

Apparently, health information technology experts say the industry has a long way to go, comparing the current models to the first big and clunky cellphones released to market.

Some newer EMR systems are designed to be more user-friendly and allow for the patients themselves to enter some information from home. What? Now you’ve got to be able to enter your health information yourself? Do you get a discount if you do the “paperwork” yourself to get better care from your doctor?

What if you don’t even have a computer?

Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health are with me on this one. They conducted the first ever study to show that seniors’ health literacy predicts how and if they use the internet.

They analyzed data from 1,400 people who took part in the 2009 and 2010 Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of over 20,000 Americans aged 65 and over. The survey included questions about how often they used the Internet, and how often they used it to find health and medical information. Participants also completed assessments of their health literacy, and rated how confident they were when it came to filling out medical forms.

The results don’t surprise me one bit: Those with low health literacy were the least likely to use the Internet. When they did use it, it wasn’t to search for health information.

So what does this tell you? If we increasingly expect people to go online for health information then we need to improve health literacy among older adults to prevent a widening of the “digital divide.” This needs to become a priority issue for policy makers and health care providers, hand in hand.


For the senior who falls into the low health literacy category, maybe it starts with an honest conversation with a friend or family member to help you learn or look for an introductory class at a community center or library. The point is you’ve got to do something, your health depends on it.

It’s never too late to learn something new, even if you are an old dog.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.