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Assessing Canadians’ Digital Health Literacy

Posted on June 2, 2021 by Ellie Yu

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed rapid change in how Canadians engage with health care professionals. According to an Infoway survey, as of April 2021, 36 per cent of all patient-reported routine visits were conducted virtually, compared to 15 per cent pre-pandemic. With more health services being provided digitally, and more Canadians turning to virtual care on a regular basis, digital health literacy is becoming increasingly important to ensuring the safety and effectiveness of digital health for both providers and patients.

Digital health literacy is defined as the skills needed to search, select, judge, transform, communicate, and use online health tools and information. While many Canadians have become more familiar with digital health services, many still need support. Providing citizens with more control in managing their health through the necessary tools and knowledge emphasizes the importance of public health interventions and policy. Digital health literacy programs, if designed precisely, can be used to mediate existing social inequalities on health outcomes.

Using survey data collected from 6,002 individuals between August 13-31, 2020, we assessed the digital health literacy of Canadians aged 16 and over with eHEALS and investigated how factors such as gender, age and socioeconomic status interact with digital health literacy (for more details on our analytical methodology, please see our analysis). eHEALS is an eight-item measure of digital health literacy developed by Dr. Cameron D. Norman and Dr. Harvey A. Skinner (2006) to measure consumers’ combined knowledge, comfort, and perceived skills at finding, evaluating and applying electronic health information to health problems.

Our analysis shows that digital health literacy has significant associations with demographic characteristics such as age and gender. Specifically, Canadians between the ages of 16-34, and those who identify as “other gender identity,” scored significantly higher on eHEALS. Our results further show that education, household income, employment status and insurance coverage significantly correlate with digital health literacy. Specifically, Canadians with more than a Bachelor’s degree, who make more than 100K annually, who are employed, and/or who have private insurance coverage scored significantly higher on eHEALS. Finally, Canadians who use more digital health services scored significantly higher on eHEALS.

Findings from our analysis point to the existence of a digital divide among Canadians. Targeted campaigns and educational programs are likely required to achieve a more equal level of digital health literacy among Canadians. In addition, we wanted to investigate whether demographic, socioeconomic and use of digital health services can predict digital health literacy scores of individuals. Results revealed that combinations of gender, age, insurance coverage, education, income and digital health service use significantly predict digital health literacy. However, these predictors only explain a small portion of the variability observed in eHEALS scores within the sample. Fully understanding and accurately predicting digital health literacy scores requires the collection of more information.

While further study is needed, evidence from our analysis has underscored the impact of demographic, socioeconomic and digital health service use on digital health literacy. These findings will lay the foundation for structuring targeted digital health literacy campaigns as we move towards higher agency for Canadians in controlling their health care.

Interested in learning more about digital health literacy? Be sure to register for the next session in our Virtual Infoway Partnership Series: Improving Patient/Caregiver Digital Health Literacy, on June 15, 2021. Connect with us at 12:30 p.m. ET for the Industry Showcase and networking before joining the main session at 1:00 p.m. ET.

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Ellie YuEllie Yu is a Performance Analyst with Canada Health Infoway where she drives business decisions using data analytics and business intelligence to demonstrate the adoption and benefits of investments in digital health. She holds a Ph.D. in Health Policy from McMaster University.

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