Intended for healthcare professionals


Provision of consumer health information in general practice

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 19 February 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:509
  1. B J Elliott,
  2. J S Polkinhorn
  1. Newnham College, Cambridge CB3 9RF The Surgery, Wickhambrook, Suffolk CB8 8XU
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Polkinhorn.
  • Accepted 12 November 1993

The term “consumer health information” is relatively new and refers to information about healthy living, medical conditions, and health and other services that is provided direct to consumers. There are arguments for developing consumer health information independently of providers of primary care and other health care. It could then be seen as impartial and as a source of empowerment for consumers of health care. On the other hand, people have traditionally gone to their general practitioner for advice on their health and find general practice surgeries convenient and appropriate places to seek information on health.1 Although there are several examples of innovations in the provision of health information to patients in general practice,*RF 2-5* there is no clear picture of the overall provision of consumer health information in general practices.


and results

A brief questionnaire about consumer health information (written, on video tape, or on audio tape) was sent in April 1993 to all 312 practices in the East Anglian region. The final response rate was 83% (n = 258). Of the 312 questionnaires, 203 were completed by the practice manager; 36 by a principal in general practice; and the remaining 19 by practice nurses, secretaries, or receptionists.

The table shows the types of information that were available for patients in general practice surgeries in East Anglia. Information about healthy lifestyles and medical conditions was available in most practices, but information about hospital waiting lists was available in less than a quarter. Information was usually given in a leaflet; in 98 practices books were available to patients, and in 60 practices videos were available. In addition to providing patients with leaflets produced by the health education authority and commercial companies, 91 practices said that they produced their own leaflets (as well as the leaflet about their practice); 36 had leaflets available in languages other than English.

Consumer health information (written, on video, or on tape), according to subject, provided by 258 general practices in East Anglia

View this table:

Seventy four practices said that they had a library for patients, with books, videos, or audio tapes for patients to borrow. One of us (JSP) carried out a follow up telephone survey of 30 of these practices; half of their libraries had between 20 and 100 books to lend to patients, six had between 100 and 500, and the rest had just a few books and tapes. Only seven practices, however, kept their library in the waiting room, where patients had direct access to the books.

We found little relation between the size or location of the practice and the type of consumer health information available. Urban practices, however, were more likely than rural practices to have leaflets in languages other than English, and fundholding practices were more likely than non-fundholding practices to produce their own leaflets and to have leaflets in languages other than English.

Practices were asked if they were planning any developments in health information services for patients in the coming year. The most popular development was the provision of videos. Other developments included setting up or improving a library for patients; producing leaflets and advice sheets within the practice; setting up a computer database; and producing a newsletter for patients. A few practices had some innovative ideas such as setting up a health information desk within the practice and having an annual health fair for patients. Four main types of problems with providing consumer health information were mentioned: lack of NHS resources; physical resources in the practice; concerns about the non-return of books, tapes, and videos; and a lack of suitable health information to provide to patients.


The availability of consumer health information in general practice surgeries in East Anglia varied greatly. Only a few practices had well stocked libraries where the books were readily available for patients to browse through and borrow. Many practices still relied on leaflets as the main way of communicating health information to their patients. Both the high response rate to the survey and the written comments about planned developments, however, show an encouraging enthusiasm for consumer health information in many practices.


We thank all the practices that participated in the survey; East Anglian Healthlink; and the family health services authorities of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk that helped to send out the questionnaire. Special thanks are due to Mrs Sally Roberts, who entered the data from the questionnaires on to the computer. JSP was on study leave while the survey was carried out and received a grant from the East Anglian regional audit team.


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