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GPs should do more to address poor patient health literacy, says RCGP

The RCGP has called for GPs to do more to explain medical jargon in patient literature after a study suggested almost half of patients struggle to understand health advice handed out by doctors and health professionals.

The study, carried out by the College, compared 65 common types of health materials, such as healthy eating guides or leaflets on the importance of sexual health screening, with average adult literacy and numeracy levels as assessed by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

And researchers identified that the health materials exceeded the literacy level of 43% of UK adults and that one in three adults would struggle to understand the numerical information.

The research identified case studies demonstrating how the lack of understanding can increase the risk of health complications. In one example, a patient missed an xray appointment because they didn’t know that they needed the radiology department, while another mistook the term ‘chronic’ to mean ‘serious’ rather than persistent.

The RCGP said issues around low health literacy should be included in GP training, and that practices needed to work with hospital colleagues to improve their ‘health literacy environments’ including introducing clearer hospital signaqe and information for patients.

RCGP Chair Maureen Baker said the College would work with NHS England to make the health system more accessible.

She added: ‘Too often, our healthcare environments fail to recognise the needs of people with different levels of understanding about their health, meaning that patients are failing to receive the right care at the right time.’

 ‘We know that low health literacy affects all areas of health and health care, which is why we want to encourage GPs and the wider NHS to ensure they are communicating complex information in a clear and manageable way. ‘

Readers' comments (10)

  • Vinci Ho

    This is all about culture shift for all so called professionals:
    We are guilty of using medical jargons. Scientists use scientific jargons, Lawyers use legal jargons.
    And politicians and bureaucrats ?
    They deliberately use political jargons to blind and confuse people to shift attention away from their underlying agenda...

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  • My practice doesn't even have a patient information leaflet available!

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  • And all in ten minutes!

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  • I think in times of high levels of stress and anxiety amongst GPs, the College could have the good sense to ease the pressure and not go on and on and on harping about what GPs must, should , or should do more. Come on, give us a break! or people will stop paying membership fees of hundreds of pounds that they have been paying to quench vanity and have a RCGP tail.

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  • Actually, I often am the one that has to re-explain to patients what their consultants said.

    And whilst I put my hands up for being a contributor to this problem, how much of the problem is due to worsening education?

    p.s. I'm always amazed patients can't understand medical jargon & leaflets but is perfectly capable of finding "MRI", "referral" "[insert expensive second line medication here]" they wish to have on the internet.

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  • I already sort out social problems, now I have to teach patients too?

    In other countries they have these wonderful people called "parents"

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  • Vinci Ho

    It is sustainable only on one condition: politicians stop interfering with the everyday running of NHS at all levels, including finances.

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  • problem is that the story has been decided and the headlines written..... no amount of actual fact can be allowed to interfere with that.

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  • Perhaps we can do a quick educational assessment and establish the patients learning needs and learning style before tailoring the information to allow them to be able to absorb and retain the information before assessing their understanding whilst negotiating a patient centred (and understood) mutually agreeable and respectful clinical plan......for each of their 4 presenting complaints, whilst offering smoking cessation advice, health promotion, care planning (all in easy to read and understand attractive literature), whilst ensuring access at patients convenience with the dr of their choice same day or at any point in the future to their convenience with instructions in various formats appropriate to their individual understanding in how to access their instant service. This ramble is available in large text easy to understand formats.

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  • 'You are afflicted with a rhinovirus causing a multitude of upper respiratory symptoms including rhinitis, pharyngitis and sinusitis. Your rhinorhoea will be helped with dihyrogen oxide in vapour form. A visit to a local person with a BPharm may leave you fiscally less well off but feeling improved.'
    -What no antibiotics then?

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