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Helping patients access the right health information

Natalie Lanyon, Account Manager in the Pharma & Life Sciences team, considers how, in a world of information overload, we ensure cut through?

Information is everywhere and access to information is little more than a smartphone tap away. Health information comes in all forms and while the patient leaflet still has it’s place, we know patients consume information in a very different way to past generations.

Whether it’s a screen in the waiting room of a GP practice or a patient blog followed by thousands, it’s our role as healthcare communicators to ensure we’re using the right channel for the right audience, at the right time. But how can we ensure we do that? And what happens when we rely on others to help us communicate those messages?

In the world of pharma, the way we talk to patients is very tightly controlled – and rightly so. We cannot make claims and we cannot promote medicines directly to the public. It means that information we produce has to be balanced, accurate and referenced.

However, I recently attended the PM Society’s ‘What does an informed patient mean for healthcare’ event. At the event, results from a recent PM Society Patient Engagement Interest Group survey were shared.

Out of 510 survey participants, they referenced Facebook groups, Mumsnet and charity websites as things they find helpful. They found information overload and conflicting or confusing advice from healthcare professional unhelpful. So where does our tightly regulated, approved information fit into that?

At the same event, results were shared from another survey, this time conducted via the doctors.net.uk website, asking doctors (GP and specialist) for their views about information. When asked what information they’re most likely to recommend to these patients, while NHS Choices, Patient.co.uk and charity websites were the top three, alarmingly, Wikipedia appeared above pharmaceutical. Doctors also said they feel that online information causes unnecessary anxiety and more than 50% of patients don’t understand the information that’s currently available.

While the survey had limitations, the findings still suggest that there’s a huge amount of work to be done.

Why are doctors reluctant to give information from the pharma industry despite the rigour that is applied to this information? As communicators, do we need to put more emphasis not on the information itself, but on ensuring it appears in the top results on Google or is it about more partnerships with charities and patient groups?

There was discussion around whether healthcare information should be part of a kite mark scheme, which would give patients and healthcare professionals some confidence. Maybe that is the right approach, but I think more needs to be done to understand what these barriers are and why they exist, before we can look to overcome them.

One thing is certain, as patients continue to consume more information and the growth in online continues, the need to ensure that they have the right information, from the right source, at the right time, becomes even more important.