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Only 12% of Americans are "health literate," meaning they have the skills to proficiently manage their own health care, according to an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) News and Numbers summary released earlier this year. Health literacy describes a person's ability to get and use health information to make good health care decisions, plus the ability to calculate health insurance costs and fill out complex medical forms.


Health literacy skills can be classified as proficient, intermediate, basic, and below basic. Besides the 12% of people who are proficient, the survey found that:


* 53% have intermediate skills, such as the ability to read and understand a prescription label


* 22% have basic skills, such as the ability to read a pamphlet and understand the need for diagnostic tests


* 14% have skills that are below basic, meaning they can grasp only simple information, such as a short list of instructions.



The basis for these figures is the 2007 National Healthcare Disparities Report, which breaks down the data by race, ethnicity, income, and education. For more information on this issue, visit AHRQ's Web site at and click on Health Literacy.