Paul Cappon made the comment after the release of the council's latest study on health literacy, defined as "the ability of individuals to access and use health information to make appropriate health decisions and maintain basic health."
The study builds on previously released data that shows 60 per cent of Canadian adults - including 88 per cent of those over 65 - lack that ability.
Health literacy is strongly correlated with health status, the study says. Adults reporting excellent general health have much higher health literacy scores on average than those reporting poor health.
As a result, policies aimed at increasing levels of health literacy and making it easier to navigate the health-care system "might turn out to be low-cost approaches to improving overall levels of health and well-being," the study says.
The potential savings are enormous, said Cappon, who is himself a physician. "I'm sure it's in the billions of dollars," he said in an interview. "It's the most important single intervention we can make to reduce health-care spending."
The study breaks down health literacy scores across Canada. Scores are highest in the Yukon and lowest in Nunavut.
They are above average in all four western provinces, but average or below in every province east of the Ontario-Manitoba border.
Scores hover near the national average in Ontario and Quebec, but plummet in immigrant-heavy Toronto.