Yet despite the sheer quantity of data available, its quality is variable and only some has a sound evidence base.
So it important for GPs and other members of the team, such as the nurses and practice manager, to reflect both on potential sources of information and also on how best to pass it to patients. Similarly, you need to decide what information to make available on paper and electronically.
Practice and health information
Patients want a lot of practical information, such as opening hours, how to make an appointment, methods for requesting a repeat prescription and so on.
They also want details about practical self-help, for example, what to do when you get a cold or a sore throat. So much care needs to go into the practice leaflet's content and, where possible, its website content.
When a patient first enters a surgery they are greeted by an array of notices on the doors, the reception desk and the noticeboard.
However, in the electronic era the practice can also post details prominently on electronic boards, signs and television monitors, which may contain healthcare advertising and notices. Similarly, there may be racks of leaflets on topics ranging from how to treat insect bites to the importance of breast cancer screening.
Many practices also have a patient participation group (PPG) and it may have its own noticeboard for meetings or fundraising events.
Dr Rodger Charlton: 'A practice website is invaluable, particularly if it is managed in the practice rather than by a commercial company' (Photograph: NTI)
Updating practice details
This is the key to providing quality information. Is there a protocol for who reviews the material, what should be included/excluded and how the information is kept up to date?
Also, does the protocol state who decides on what new material is to be included? Usually the practice manager decides but there should also be some clinical input.
A practice website can be invaluable, particularly if it is managed in the practice rather than by a commercial company. The latter will include advertising that some team members may not be happy with. The freedom to change pages and content, for instance to let patients know about important health events, such as the flu jab clinic, can be beneficial for all.
Most patient information displayed is closely associated with advertising, so a practice protocol for patient information should be very clear over what the team is happy with and what it is not Similarly, it is useful to gain a view from the PPG in this and the other areas mentioned so that the patient perspective is included.
In the consultation
The GP can refer to a sound evidence-based source, such as GPnotebook (www.gpnotebook.co.uk) when asked a difficult question or if they want is to check any details. Another useful site is NHS Clinical Knowledge Summaries (www.cks.nhs.uk), which was formerly PRODIGY. This gives practical know-how about the common conditions managed in primary care.
A further source is the NHS library called Health Information Resources (www.library.nhs.uk), the former National Library for Health, where there is a search function for illnesses and treatments. The internet is also an invaluable resource for holiday vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis details.
Many practices also have an intranet with similar information and information leaflets. There should be a consensus practice view on what to include on your intranet.
There is currently an explosion in information available for patients and this can be used to both the patient's and the GP's advantage.
Patients understandably wish to find out as much as they can, and GPs are keen that they are empowered to do this from quality sources.
These can aid patients in managing some self-limiting conditions themselves and can also reassure when appropriate.
Being able to distinguish between knowing when to seek professional help because of what constitute 'red flags' in relation to symptoms and the pathway that a particular illness may take is empowering and consoling.
Information sheets should be neutral, non-promotional and have a sound evidence base. These can be downloaded from the internet and printed with ease.
It is useful to be able to refer patients to recommended websites for aid with self-management, such as NHS Choices (www.nhs.uk) or, for patient leaflets, Patient UK (www.patient.co.uk) or, for disease information, BBC Health (www.bbc.co.uk/health/)
In the electronic world, new ways of providing patients with information is gaining hold, including possibly using emails and texting messages to patients' mobile phones.
- Dr Charlton is a GP in Solihull and associate clinical professor at Warwick Medical School
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