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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 00:37 GMT 01:37 UK
Millions 'illiterate' about health
Waiting room
Many people don't understand basic advice
Millions of people in the UK do not understand even basic health information, a report says.

The National Consumer Council is calling for greater efforts to ensure patients are able to make informed choices about their care.

It says there is a huge gap in "health literacy" between the richest and poorest sections of society, fuelling widening inequalities in health care.

It called for measures such as more information in plain language.

Real choice can only be exercised by people who are informed
Dr Simon Fradd
Ministers are committed to boosting choice in the health service, and giving patients more of a say over when and where they are treated.

The NCC quizzed 2,000 adults for its report, which was funded by the Department of Health.

It found one in five people - as many as seven million across the country - had problems with basic skills, making them unable to understand and interpret basic information that could lead to better health.

The NNC research found the majority of people from all social classes fail to seek out information about their health.

However, the problem was more acute among poorer sections of the community.

For instance, 27% of people in the highest social groups were likely to read medicine information leaflets - but among the less well off, the figure was just 12%.

The richest were also more likely to ask their GP questions - 45% compared to 35% - and search the internet for information about their health - 39% compared to 16%.

The NCC said many people underestimated their need for help and felt there was a stigma attached to asking for assistance.

It also said health professionals sometimes put up barriers which stopped patients getting information, such as appearing too busy to answer questions or doing so in an incomprehensible way.

Plain language

Ed Mayo, NCC chief executive, said: "Building health literacy isn't only about changing the mindset of a population trapped by their respect for and deference to health professionals.

"It also means a more user-focused approach from the NHS - making information available in plain language, when and how patients want it.

"Bilingual staff and trained interpreters must be on hand for people with limited English."

The NCC says the government, and everyone working in the NHS, must help educate patients and support them in their decisions.

Bilingual staff and trained interpreters must be on hand for people with limited English
Ed Mayo, NCC chief executive
It also recommends research should be carried out to measure the impact of poor health literacy on access to healthcare.

Dr Simon Fradd, of the group Developing Patient Partnerships, said: "Real choice can only be exercised by people who are informed.

"Health literacy is essential to improving health and access to health services. The NHS has a clear role to play in ensuring that people are equipped with the right information, at the right time and in the right format so everyone can benefit from health services and good health.

"The education system is also uniquely placed to encourage health literacy from the earliest stage in life."

Health Secretary John Reid said: "The government is committed to reducing health inequalities, and to achieve this we must widen choice beyond the better off, beyond those who have traditionally had better knowledge and more information.

"The NCC's report sets out the challenges ahead - ensuring that everyone has the skills and capabilities to benefit from the investment we are making.

"An increase in health literacy will increase people's capacity to take more control over their own health and their own lives."

Finding out about a health issue
Social grouping
Action AB C1 C2 DE
Ask my doctor 45% 32% 40% 35%
Ask friend/relative 33% 31% 35% 25%
Ask pharmacist 31% 25% 28% 25%
Internet search 39% 25% 19% 16%
Book search 28% 20% 14% 15%
Read medicine info 27% 17% 12% 12%
Mag/Newspaper search 22% 16% 12% 11%
Contact NHS Direct 15% 16% 13% 9%
Ask practice nurse 15% 11% 11% 10%
Do nothing 13% 19% 22% 28%
Source: National Consumer Council

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