Health Outcomes: Improving Canada’s Health Information Literacy
As Ontario joins several other provinces in lifting mask mandates for most indoor settings, it remains critical that health information and proper analysis of health data are at the forefront of all public health decisions. Over the past two years, the topic of health information has dominated media headlines, defined political updates and decisions – such as the Prime Minister’s daily COVID-19 briefings during the early days of the pandemic – and shaped discussions at kitchen tables.
Yet we also know that health discourse has become increasingly vulnerable to misinformation and has been used as ammunition in debates over public health decisions. For example, many opposed to public health measures often cite advanced age and pre-existing conditions as reasons to not implement health protocols meant to protect the broader population.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of health information and its ability to inform our efforts to combat this deadly virus – from identifying the most hard-hit neighbourhoods and age groups in the country to developing the necessary interventions to prevent further spread. Health data is used daily across the country to inform the delivery of care, plan public health services, adjust policies and identify gaps in health services. For example, we can evaluate the impact of socio-economic factors, such as race and income, on people's health or their access to care through health data analysis. This evaluation is beneficial in determining funding allocations to improve health outcomes.
Public demand for more health information from governments and health agencies regarding Canada's response to the pandemic highlights the need to improve the health data literacy of citizens.
We have an opportunity to address misinformation and correlated mistrust issues if we work to increase peoples' understanding of health information and its value, and ensure that those responsible for managing, sharing and analyzing it are certified.
It is in our collective interest to begin by educating young people on interpreting, understanding and thinking critically about health information. Health information includes all the data that provide an accurate and holistic health story for every person: emergency department visits, primary care appointments, specialist referrals, immunization records, hospitalizations, medical history, symptoms, diagnoses, procedures, outcomes, lab results, demographic information and more.
Health information can be viewed at an individual level to track how a person's health has changed over time, or as a part of a more extensive data set to understand population health changes and identify policy interventions to assist in better health outcomes.
The greater the awareness of the meaning and usage of health information, the more empowered people will be to make informed decisions about their health journey and contribute to valuable conversations around public health decisions. Awareness will minimize the volume of misinformation that may lead to harmful health outcomes for Canadians.
But first, organizations that collect health information must ensure that those who manage our health data are professionally certified to actively engage in their operations. Health information management cannot be an afterthought. Just as we drive across a bridge trusting that it has been designed by a certified engineer, so the same should be true for the integrity of our health information management.
Certified health information management professionals are key contributors in the collection and study of data that help shape policy and healthcare delivery to people from coast to coast to coast. Their unique expertise in information governance, data quality, clinical knowledge, analytics, privacy and technology allows them to analyze healthcare trends and implement improvements.
As Canada's healthcare leaders and governments continue to address the COVID-19 pandemic and we move through recovery to build a better healthcare system, we must ensure that:
- we work to increase health information literacy for all Canadians, especially healthcare leaders and elected officials responsible for policy decisions; and
- certified health information management professionals are a part of decision-making teams in our healthcare system.
These two things are critical to the success of evidence-based, data-driven health policy in this country.
About the Author(s)
Jeff Nesbitt is the CEO of Canadian Health Information Management Association (CHIMA). CHIMA is the national professional association for the health information industry in Canada, representing over 5,000 health information members from coast to coast to coast.
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