Agency: Only About 1 in 10 Adult Americans Are Health Literate

Just 12 percent of America's 228 million adults have the skills to manage their own health care proficiently, according to the latest News and Numbers from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

These skills, known collectively as health literacy, describe people's ability to obtain and use health information to make appropriate health care decisions. They include weighing the risks and benefits of different treatments, knowing how to calculate health insurance costs, and being able to fill out complex medical forms.

A person with poor health literacy may not get good results from their health care and increase the risks of medical errors.

A 2003 survey of health literacy skills classified adults into four categories: proficient, intermediate, basic, and below basic. In addition to the 12 percent deemed proficient, the survey found that

  • 53 percent had intermediate skills, such as being able to read instructions on a prescription label and determine the right time to take medication.
  • 22 percent had basic skills, such as being able to read a pamphlet and understand two reasons why a disease test might be appropriate despite a lack of symptoms.
  • 14 percent had below basic skills, meaning they could accomplish only simple tasks such understanding a set of short instructions or identifying what is permissible to drink before a medical test. Of these, 7 million were non-literate in English.

This AHRQ News & Numbers summary is based on data from the 2007 National Healthcare Disparities Report (http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/qrdr07.htm), which examines the disparities in Americans' access to and quality of health care, with breakdowns by race, ethnicity, income, and education.

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