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Healthcare information ‘too complex’ for patients

10 December 2012

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Everyday health information and advice is “too complex” for almost half of patients, research suggests.

Researchers from South Bank University found 43% of people aged between 16 and 65 years old are unable to “effectively understand and use” everyday healthcare information.

This figure rises to 61% when the information requires mathematics skills, which means that between 15m – 21m people of working age across the country may not be able to understand and use the information they need to look after their health.

Researchers collected a wide ranging sample of health materials commonly used to promote and protect health, manage illness or navigate services – such as health screening posters, labels on medicines, letters from GPs, and road safety information.

All sample materials were rated for difficulty and compared to the literacy and numeracy skills of the English working age population.

Around 15m (43%) of English adults aged 16-65 years old reported they are unable to understand instructions to calculate a child’s dose of paracetamol and 17m (49%) said they could not understand instructions for using a bowel cancer screening kit.

Almost one in eight adults (27m) also said they were unable to calculate their body mass index (BMI) from a chart.

Studies from the US has previously shown that people with low health literacy levels have poorer health, are “less likely” to engage in cancer screening programmes and are “less likely” to be able to manage illnesses such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and asthma.

Researchers now claim this may also be true for the population in England as more than two-thirds of people, (67%), who reported they were in “poor health” had low health literacy skills.
Professor Gill Rowlands, Professor of health disparities at London South Bank University who led the research team said: “Health literacy skills are needed to understand and use information in ways that promote and safeguard good health.

“We know from research in the US and other countries that poor skills levels such as these have a huge impact and can lead to poor health. This is a preventable problem, which puts an increasing pressure on an already stretched health service.”

Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes MP, said he hopes those involved in producing health information “take note” of the findings.

“We must improve the way health information is communicated to make sure all patients using the NHS can gain the maximum benefit from the services available,” he said.

Deepak Khanna, managing director of MSD UK – who sponsored the research – said: “The ability to understand and act on information is vital if patients are to become active participants in decisions about their health”.