Tips to Get, Understand, & Act on Health Information

Written By Aman Sium

I remember going with my father to see his oncologist (cancer doctor), who broke the news of his cancer to us. We waited for him in a small, all-white room. The room was just big enough to fit the exam table along the wall, but small enough to make you feel as if no one else could fit in it.

When the oncologist finally came in, he stood by the door and kept one hand on the doorknob. It seemed like he was getting ready to leave from the moment he walked in. He took a moment to lower his head to stare at his feet. When he looked back up, he turned to me and said, “Your father has renal cell carcinoma, and it has metastasized to his brain”.

Image of Aman and his father
Aman and his father.

More than anything else, I remember two things from that day. First, the oncologist never looked at my father or spoke to him directly. My father later told me that this made him feel invisible and removed from his doctor’s care. Second, my father and I were still not sure if he had cancer. We both had no clue what “renal cell carcinoma” or “metastasized” meant. But before we could ask any questions, the oncologist was gone.

I share my father’s story because October is Health Literacy Month. Health literacy means using different skills to get, understand, and act on health information.

Most Canadians have low health literacy, including 88% of seniors my father’s age. Like my father and I that day, most Canadians struggle to access and understand important health information that affects their care.

Low health literacy could lead to many problems with one’s health. To help reduce the impact of low health literacy, health care providers have the duty to:

  • Make health information clear and easy to understand,
  • Make eye contact and speak to patients directly,
  • Be patient and active listeners,
  • Respect each patient as active decision-makers over their health care, and
  • See patients and families as health care teachers as well as learners.


But health care providers may not always do these things on their own. So my father and I have started to do few things to make sure they did.

  • We ask doctors and nurses to speak slowly, and repeat any information we don’t understand. This helps us remember important information.
  • When doctors or nurses make eye contact with me but not my father, I start looking at my father to try re-direct their attention. Most of the time, they notice their error and start speaking directly to my father.
  • We write down our questions before seeing the doctor. Building a list of important questions and concerns helps us get the information we need during our visits.
  • We ask doctors and nurses to sit down during our visits. We tell them that this makes us more comfortable and less nervous.


These are just a few of the ideas that have worked for me and my father, and I encourage you to find the things that work for you.