Time for a fresh look at medicines information, experts say

Just over a third of people (37 per cent) trust research-based evidence when it comes to taking medicines, compared to around two-thirds (65 per cent) who trust the experiences of friends and family, a new report has found – and ‘impenetrable’ patient information leaflets could be partly to blame, the authors argue. However, some say the report's conclusions regarding leaflets are harder to implement than the authors acknowledge, and that effective pharmacist interactions could have more of a role to play.

Enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicines, published by the Academy of Medical Sciences, argues that it’s time to revisit the way patients receive information about their medicines. The report, which looked at survey data from 1,013 GPs and 2,041 adult members of the public, found that many find it difficult to make sense of information from different sources, such as the internet, newspapers and family and friends.

Patient Information Leaflets

A key area of concern highlighted in the report is the difficulty people have in making sense of the patient information leaflets (PILs) they receive with their medicines, with members of the public describing them as ‘impenetrable’ and ‘unreadable’.

The report calls on the European Commission and European Medicines Agency (EMA) to work with national regulatory authorities, pharmaceutical companies and patients to reform PILs to make it easier to understand both the potential benefits and harms of medicines. The Academy argues that the information patients currently receive lists all of the possible side effects of medicines but ‘are particularly poor at outlining the potential benefits of treatments’.

‘Clearer, more useful information’

The report also looks at how medical appointments can be made more useful for patients and medical professionals, suggesting a series of questions that can help people make informed decisions about medicines, and recommends that more should be done to make NHS Choices a ‘go to‘ source of online health information.

Report chair Professor Sir John Tooke FMedSci said: “It is startling to hear that only about a third of the public trust medical research, and that patients are struggling to make sense of the information they receive from their doctor, the TV, the internet and their friends and family about medicines. 

“With our ageing population and ever more sophisticated treatments being made available, we need to act now to give patients clearer and more useful information about the medicines they take.”

Easier said than done?

 Professor Theo Raynor, Professor of Pharmacy Practice at the University of Leeds and member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Expert Advisory Panel on Pharmaceutical Science, noted that PILs are already subject to consultation with members of the public to ensure they are user friendly: "Not mentioned in the Academy’s report is that for more than 10 years, manufacturers have had to ‘user test’ their PILs with lay people – so they are already ‘revised in consultation with patients and carers’. Despite this testing, further improvements are needed, with a more rigorous application of the user testing process, ensuring that it is iterative – with repeated testing and improvement until the required level of readability is reached."

Professor Raynor commented on calls for a better balance between benefit and harm information: "There is no consensus on how best to present such balanced information – so the Academy’s recommendation is easier said than done."

He suggested that effective conversations with a pharmacist could help patients get maximum value from the information available to them, for example by going through the PIL together: "The PIL may be the only piece of information about their medicines that patients receive, as so it could be argued that pharmacy staff should use the PIL to help them when talking to patients about their medicines – take it out of the box, point out the key points in the leaflet – focussing on those most relevant to the particular patient. In this way the patient may see more value in the PIL – and it helps the pharmacist to include all the key points and tailor their discussion to the individual patient."

Speak to a pharmacist

Donna Castle, Director of Public Affairs and Communications at PAGB said, “Ensuring people can access easily understandable and reliable information about their medicines is a priority for the consumer healthcare industry.  This is why PAGB is an active supporter of the Self Care Forum, a charity which helps to promote self care and improve health literacy.

“All OTC medicines are sold with Patient Information Leaflets which pass through extensive user-testing to ensure their readability, but we recommend if anyone has any concerns about a medicine, they should speak to their local pharmacist.  Pharmacists are expert healthcare professionals who can provide advice and information about medicines, yet we know that less than 10% of people currently visit their pharmacist to access this support.

“This is an important report from the Academy of Medical Sciences which acknowledges the good progress being made by regulators and industry and recognises how continuing collaboration might drive further improvements in levels of patient understanding about medicines.”

 

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