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JUL 15/2014

How doctors can communicate more clearly with those in need

NHS doctors could soon be expected to revamp the way they communicate with their patients in order to ensure medical advice is made clearer and more comprehensible to everyone.

A recent study has shed light on the fact that many UK patients currently find the guidance they are given by medical professionals to be too complex - a problem that could undermine the quality and effectiveness of care offered by the NHS if left unchecked.

However, although this is a potentially serious issue, it is one that is well within the power of doctors and NHS managers to solve.

The problem of comprehension
Earlier this month, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) published a report that shed light on how widespread this problem has become.

The analysis revealed that 43 per cent of UK adults fail to fully understand information that contains text, such as signs in hospital, leaflets and health guides. Moreover, one in three adults has difficulty in understanding numerical information presented to them.

According to the report, health professionals can sometimes overestimate the health literacy of their patients, who in turn feel too embarrassed to ask questions. The practice of supplementing verbal information with a leaflet also causes issues, as this presumes that it can be read and understood.

Examples highlighted in the study include one case in which a patient was unable to have a chest X-ray performed as they did not understand they should be looking for the hospital department marked 'radiology', while in other instances, people have misunderstood the term 'chronic' to mean serious or life-threatening, rather than persistent.

Lower levels of health literacy have been linked to worse physical and mental health outcomes and affect demographics with lower incomes - including older people and black and ethnic minority groups - particularly badly.

What can be done?
The RCGP believes the NHS should take a unified approach to dealing with this problem, with GPs leading the charge, given that 90 per cent of patient contacts in the NHS take place in GP surgeries.

Doctors have been advised to work with hospital colleagues to improve health literacy environments with measures such as introducing clearer hospital signage and information for patients.

Meanwhile, the organisation will work with NHS England to develop a five-year plan that will result in the creation of new guidance and system-wide recommendations that will change the ways GPs are trained to communicate with patients whose health literacy is low, while ensuring clinical commissioning groups design services differently.

Measures such as this will help to address and eliminate the inequalities and variations in care standards that health literacy issues currently cause.

Maureen Baker, chair of the RCGP, said: "We know that low health literacy affects all areas of health and healthcare, which why we want to encourage GPs and the wider NHS to ensure they are communicating complex information in a clear and manageable way.

"We look forward to working with NHS England to on this work to help shape a health system that is truly accessible to all."

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