Research showing that 80 per cent of primary care professionals are demanding more and better patient health information should come as no surprise to GPs.
The findings, from a survey for Developing Patient Partnerships (DPP), bear out the effects of an evolution in government policy designed to promote self-care and appropriate service use, which will act for the good of patients and the NHS itself.
In addition, the advent of quality targets and practice-based commissioning has created an economic imperative for GPs to nurture self-caring patients, who are well-versed in appropriate service use and in adopting healthy lifestyles.
Add the increased requirement for patient health information brought about by NICE guidelines on issues such as smoking cessation and obesity, and it is easy to see why we are crying out for some direction in this area.
The problem is not a dearth of information. On the contrary, GPs and patients alike are bombarded with health messages from a plethora of sources, including the government, the pharmaceutical industry, not-for-profit organisations and the media. So the quantity is there.
What is lacking is any guarantee of quality, coherence and relevance to patients' lives, plus the appropriate channels to ensure material is consistently distributed and updated.
In our attempts to support patients' information needs, we may be inadvertently letting them down by handing out information which has some kind of bias towards a specific treatment, or information that lacks an up-to-date evidence base or which has not been subject to systematic peer review.
While many surgeries flounder in a sea of leaflets urging patients to lose weight or drink less, we have to ask ourselves how much of it actually provides a compelling argument to do so, together with practical, easy-to-understand advice on making lifestyle changes.
Format can also be a problem. Like most doctors, I regularly use clinical systems to print out information for my patients to take home, but how much of this is in a presentable, digestible format, relevant to individuals' daily lives?
Design may be as important as the overall message if we want people to be engaged and pay attention to its content.
As the DPP survey also showed, although GPs and nurses work hard to ensure patients have the information they need, there may often be inconsistency, even within practices, with different professionals using different resources.
For example, 74 per cent of GPs rely on clinical systems and websites, while 57 per cent of practice nurses access materials produced by pharmaceutical companies.
Furthermore, we must look at the scope of the materials we are providing.
As well as information that is designed to keep people healthy, there is a significant need for materials that educate the public on the effective use of services.
We must also think carefully about who in the healthcare team is best placed to deliver this information. While the best approach will always involve practice staff working together, 40 per cent of GPs seem to feel practice nurses are well positioned to provide a good service in this area, perhaps due to the nature of their consultations.
So, given the increasing likelihood that the burden of providing health information will shift from primary care organisations (PCOs) to the practices themselves, the importance of having a clear strategy in place to cope with this demand cannot be overstated.
For practices wanting to improve health information provision, an effective first step is to ensure that patients have access to unbiased, reliable and well-designed information leaflets.
Moving a step further, practices really wanting to reap the benefits of this approach can implement a fairly straightforward strategy.
These practices need to identify a budget for campaign material, together with a practice lead and a small team to develop the project. Local targets and hard-to-reach groups can be mapped out, along with quality targets to identify where health education information will help the practice to achieve points.
Fit for purpose
Information available from the PCO can then be reviewed for appropriateness and fitness for purpose, and this can be supplemented where necessary with additional resources.
Campaign promotion, responding to feedback and evaluating activity are the final steps in the process.
Perhaps the main hurdle comes with the development of resources. It is highly unlikely that GPs and primary care teams will be able to spare the time needed to research and develop high-quality health education materials.
Clearly, specialist expertise is required throughout, but as the DPP survey shows, it is also worthwhile, with 98 per cent of GPs and 90 per cent of practice nurses supporting the need for a single source of unbiased, high-quality information.
In the DPP's experience, such high-quality materials rely on agreeing the content and approach with experts, and then seeking input from other appropriate partners and third parties.
Testing messages and their impact on patients is also vital, as is sourcing good designers and printers to ensure that you produce targeted, high-quality resources, which engage with patients and meet local needs.
With access to appropriate resources, rather than seeing the need to provide this as an additional responsibility, GPs can then view the hiatus in information provision as an opportunity to take control of the process of health education in their practices.
Without action being taken, patients will lack the information they need to maintain good health and make effective use of NHS services.
With a strategy in place and if specialist assistance is provided, much more positive outcomes can be quite painlessly achieved.
- Dr Wrigley is a GP principal in Carnforth, Lancashire and joint chairman of Developing Patient Partnerships. MORE INFORMATION
Developing Patient Partnerships is a health education charity partly funded by the DoH. For more information, please visit www.dpp.org.uk.