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Patient information leaflets: “a stupid system”

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f4748 (Published 30 July 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f4748
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

The NHS’s multifarious patient information leaflets are inaccurate, inconsistent, and confusing, finds Margaret McCartney, and effort is duplicated because each trust commissions its own, often from the private sector

The so called patient revolution is nothing without quality information. And so the NHS is awash with patient information, especially leaflets, in hospital wards, outpatient clinics, and general practitioners’ surgeries. Some trusts commission leaflets from external, profit making companies; others write their own. But how efficiently does the health service coordinate them, and are leaflets tested for effectiveness on patients?

In a recent study researchers asked 128 trusts for leaflets given to patients after an inguinal hernia repair, and 93 trusts responded.1 Almost one in five trusts sent a leaflet created by a private company, Eido Healthcare. Others had inconsistent guidance on when to return to office work (ranging 1-6 weeks) or manual work (2-12 weeks). Similarly, leaflets gave conflicting advice about when to resume driving, sex, and sport. This means that patients are being given very different information about the effects of the same surgery, depending on where they live and which leaflets are used.

A similar study examined leaflets provided to patients who had been offered extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy. The researchers found that the leaflets did not consistently mention common recognised complications and some were not mentioned at all.2 Another study, which examined patient information leaflets given for transrectal ultrasound guided prostate biopsy, again found wide variation, with drugs, analgesia, and complications …

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