Health literacy within the reality of immigrants' culture and language

Can J Public Health. 2006 May-Jun;97 Suppl 2:S26-30.
[Article in English, French]


The Second Canadian Conference on Literacy and Health addressed issues of health literacy, culture, and linguistic diversity. This article aims to introduce the presenters' ideas, reports of the learners' discussion, and attendees' recommendations. There is also a literature review of the links between health literacy and use of health services among newcomers in Canada. Newcomers to Canada tend to be unfamiliar with the Canadian health care system in terms of navigating needed services and/or seeking health-related information. Health professionals report difficulties in communicating effectively with these populations about risk-taking behaviours. Educational resources and approaches only partially reach people from cultural minorities. E-health information does little for those with language and literacy limitations. Barriers to accessing information, specifically written material, are widely reported. Consequently, many ethnocultural groups do not participate in health promotion initiatives. Among newcomers to Canada, the problems of adapting to a new health culture are linked to both a lack of information about the new health care available and subsequently their experience with that health care system. There is also a structural barrier. It includes lack of access to preventive health care services and the lack of a formal and informal support network. This results in less effective use of these preventive services. Linguistic, religious, and cultural factors contribute to the newcomers' social isolation. Multidisciplinary work to enhance health literacy and awareness about health and healthy lifestyles will permit ethnocultural populations to develop their potential and more fully enjoy their lives in Canada. Simultaneously, health educators should have the opportunity to realize their limitations and challenges in dealing with the complexity of providing health education to this population. There remain gaps in our knowledge about the access and use of health services by subpopulations from different cultural groups in terms of their gender, learning practices, ways of navigating services, and help-seeking behaviours.

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Communication
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Educational Status*
  • Emigration and Immigration*
  • Ethnicity / education*
  • Ethnicity / psychology
  • Health Education*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Health Priorities*
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / ethnology
  • Public Health*