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Patients find health information too complicated

Central role for GPs to improve communication

Jo Carlowe

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Nearly half of all adults in England fail to fully understand the health advice given to them by doctors and other health professionals. 

Research from The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) shows that 43% of patients have difficulty comprehending information that contains text such as signs in hospital, leaflets and health guides, while one in three adults fails to understand numerical information presented to them. 

In its report: Health Literacy, the College states that GPs have a ‘central role’ to play in improving communication skills and tailoring information not only to clinical need but also to patient health literacy. 

Health professionals can sometimes overestimate the health literacy of their patients, and patients can feel too embarrassed to ask questions, notes the report.

In addition, doctors often supplement verbal information with a leaflet, presuming that it can be read. This can lead to distress and a lack of understanding for patients.

The research highlighted examples where a patient referred for a chest x-ray didn’t have it done because he walked around the hospital and couldn’t find the department because the sign read ‘radiology’, and where patients misunderstood the term ‘chronic’ to mean ‘serious’ rather than persistent.

Lower levels of health literacy - which can mean knowing how to take your medication in a safe and effective way, or recognising the risks and benefits of different treatments - has been linked to worse physical and mental health, and serious health conditions such as heart failure and diabetes.

The research found that levels of health literacy vary considerably across the country, with London being amongst one of the worst areas within the south of England. Those facing the biggest barriers are older people, black and ethnic minority groups, those with lower incomes. 

As 90% of patient contacts in the NHS take place in GP surgeries, GPs are in an excellent position to work with patients and support their understanding, says the RCGP.

Recommendations for GPs include the need to work with hospital colleagues to improve ‘health literacy environments’ such as introducing clearer hospital signaqe and information for patients.

Commenting, Maureen Baker, Chair of the RCGP said: “Too often, our healthcare environments fail to recognise the needs of people with different levels of understanding about their health, meaning that patients are failing to receive the right care at the right time. 

“We know that low health literacy affects all areas of health and health care, which is why we want to encourage GPs and the wider NHS to ensure they are communicating complex information in a clear and manageable way.

“We look forward to working with NHS England too on this work to help shape a health system that is truly accessible to all.”

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