Current methods of providing patient information could be increasing health inequalities

Posted on Wednesday 17th June 2009

Current methods of providing information about local NHS services have limited reach and effectiveness, according to a new report, published today, from the University of Birmingham’s Health Services Management Centre. 

The report found that most patient information is provided in the form of written leaflets or via the internet. However, this approach may not be effective in getting health information to groups who are currently not well served by the NHS.

Giving patients access to better information about local health services is central to the government’s policy of encouraging patient choice. The national public website NHS Choices acts as a portal for much of this information.

Around one in five British people do not have basic literacy and struggle to read, and one third of households do not have a home internet connection. Consequently many people are not able to access and/or understand information which could help them choose and use health services effectively.

The report’s author Jo Ellins highlights the risks of focusing on these sources of information: “Older people, ethnic minority communities and those on lower incomes are among the groups who are most likely to have literacy problems and least likely to use the internet.

 Evidence shows that alternative ways of delivering information are far more successful at reaching these groups. More effective alternatives include telephone helplines, digital television and community education programmes.”

Most people prefer to get information about local services from a health professional, such as their GP. But the report found that many health professionals are not signposting patients to reliable sources of information or supporting them to play a more active role in their health care. The authors highlight a number of reasons for this, including the limited time available during GP consultations and negative professional attitudes towards patient empowerment. 

Jo Ellins adds: “The NHS recognises that information is essential to support patient choice and it is committed to making more information about health services publicly available. But the way in which this information is currently provided restricts opportunities for informed choice to more educated and affluent patients. There is a very real danger that this is sustaining, or even increasing, health inequalities.”

Co-author Shirley McIver added “Some people will need support to help them find, understand and use information about local services. While GPs are ideally placed to provide this help, our research found that many are not doing so. More training for health professionals in how to work in partnership with their patients is necessary.”

ENDS

‘Supporting patients to make informed choices in primary care: what works?’ by Jo Ellins and Shirley McIver is based on research carried out for West Midlands Strategic Health Authority. The Health Services Management Centre (HSMC) at the University of Birmingham is one of the leading health services research centres in England.

For further information, please contact: Ben Hill, Press Officer, University of Birmingham, Tel 0121 414 5134, Mob 07789 921163