Karen Chan, a patient at UHN and self-described "life-long learner," says the program has helped her make new friends, feel more independent and happier. (Photo: Courtesy Karen Chan)

When Karen Chan heard UHN's Patient & Family Learning Centres was offering a digital literacy program in Cantonese, she was excited to acquire new tech skills in her first language, and share her learnings with friends.

"I always enjoy learning something new and the pandemic was a great opportunity for me to better understand how to use technology," Karen, a patient at UHN's Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at Toronto Western Hospital, says by way of an interpreter.

A retired accountant, Karen maintains close ties to her traditional roots, including volunteering at a Chinese community centre in Toronto. For her, and other Chinese speaking patients of UHN, access to resources and workshops in their native language are few and far between.

Patients being left behind

During the pandemic, like many hospitals globally, UHN patients relied on online technologies and virtual platforms to access their health services, health and wellness information, and stay socially connected. These changes were especially hard for seniors, individuals living by themselves and non-English speaking patients.

"Patients from the Chinese community who are not technologically savvy or experience language barriers have been left behind as a result of this change," says Po-Lin Cheung-Leung, Information Specialist, Patient & Family Learning Centres, UHN. "Currently, there aren't many options available for them to improve their digital literacy skills.

"Toronto Public Library and other organizations offer most of their technology classes in English and do not focus on healthcare-related needs."

To help bridge the gap, Po-Lin worked closely with Valeria Raivich, Manager, and Evangeline Roldan, Administrative Coordinator, at UHN's Patient & Family Learning Centres to create the "Smart Health e-Learning" (e學智健康), a Chinese digital literacy program providing online group classes for Chinese patients, family members, caregivers, and community members.

Current and former TeamUHN comes together to help break down virtual health barriers

Together they worked with Elizabeth Chiu, Manager, Decision Support and UHN Data & Analytics, to assemble a group of six volunteers, comprised of current and former UHN staff. The instructors included, Elizabeth and Po-Lin, as well as Jason Chiu, Daisy Ho, Tian Liu, Raymond Sin and San Tsui.

The team spent their off-hours organizing an eight-week curriculum that would teach eight Cantonese speaking learners core functions on their cell phones and computers, including how to access and use Microsoft Teams, the standardized platform for UHN's Virtual Care.

"Through the experiences of our families and loved ones, each of us saw the barriers navigating a virtual health world and wanted to help make a difference," says Elizabeth. "Everyone contributed their own unique skill to the curriculum's development.

"It wasn't just the course participants that learned something new, each of the instructors did as well."

According to data collected by the UHN Interpretation and Translation Services, Chinese-speaking patients comprise the second-largest patient group at UHN, after only English-speaking. And while UHN's Patient & Family Learning Centres' work with the Chinese communities goes back to the early 2000s with the creation of the Toronto Western Hospital Patient Library, Valeria says there's still much work to do.

"If we believe healthcare should be equitable and every Canadian deserves fair access to it, how we provide care and the barriers to receiving it must be examined," says Valeria.

'I want to learn everything'

Last week, the program completed its eighth and final workshop, with participants learning how to read e-books.

"For our next series this summer, we're hoping for the program to be delivered in-person which will allow for a better, hands-on approach for teaching and learning," says Po-Lin. "We're going to let participant enrollment determine whether to host it in Cantonese or Mandarin."

For Karen, a self-described "life-long learner," this program has helped her make new friends and feel more independent and happier.

"I want to learn everything," says Karen with a laugh. "My next goal is to design a website for myself and learn how to edit a video."

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