Only 12 percent of America's 228 million adults qualify as health literate — that is, they have the minimum skills to manage their own health care — according to a new report from the U.S. government Agency for Healthcare Research.

Health literacy is shorthand for the ability to obtain and use health information to make appropriate health care decisions. It includes being able to weigh the risks and benefits of different treatments, knowing how to calculate health insurance costs, and being able to fill out complex medical forms.

Being health literate can make a big difference: People with poor health literacy tend not to get as good results from their health care, and they are more likely to become the victim 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.
For more on health literacy, read our series, Well Informed.