Health information “too complex” for many

EVERYDAY health information is too complex for nearly half of patients to understand, according to a new study.

Researchers at London South Bank University found 43 per cent of people in England aged between 16 and 65 are unable to “effectively understand and use” such information. The figure rises to 61 per cent when the information also requires maths skills.

This means that between 15 and 21 million working age people in England cannot understand the information they need to look after their health. People in London and the north-east were found to be particularly disadvantaged when interpreting health information.

The study looked at material such as health screening posters, medicine labels and letters from GPs. One example assessed was instructions to calculate a child’s dose of paracetamol which was rated as requiring the reading skills of a 14-16 year-old and maths skills of a five to seven-year-old. Despite this, 43 per cent of those surveyed could not effectively understand the information.

Research team leader Professor Gill Rowlands said: “Health literacy skills are needed to understand and use information in ways that promote and safeguard good health. We know from research in the US and other countries that poor skills levels such as these have a huge impact and can lead to poor health.

"This is a preventable problem, which puts an increasing pressure on an already stretched health service. Our priority now is to look at addressing the challenges uncovered in the research and to develop solutions to ensure health information is more easily understood."

The results of the survey were presented to an audience of MPs, academics and healthcare organisations.

Following the presentation, Simon Hughes MP said: “We must improve the way health information is communicated to make sure all patients using the NHS can gain the maximum benefit from the services available.”