Medicine information leaflets that are provided with every drug purchased often is either left unread or merely flipped through by consumers globally. A new survey has delved into this issue and revealed patients’ thoughts and comments and provided recommendations on the current state of leaflets amongst other issues.

Recommendation for improvement of leaflets

The Academy of Medical Sciences recently conducted an online poll that included 2,041 British adults and 1,013 GPs to highlight difficulties patients and healthcare professionals face in using evidence from medical research to weigh the benefits and harms of medicines. Their report calls for a review of this and the implementation of a more balanced approach.

The Academy noted that there is just a “laundry list” of medicinal side effects on patient information leaflets inside packs and not enough on their benefits. This could possibly be the cause of fewer than 50% continuing with their prescriptions. The probability of side effects occurring is rarely explained and these risks are labelled “possible” or “serious” instead.

Prof Sir John Tooke, chair of the Academy of Medical Sciences report said, “We all need medicines at some point in our life; yet, the decision as to whether to use a drug or not can be a confusing one. It is our view that unless we improve the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential harms and benefits of medicines, both established and new, patients will not reap the full advantage of scientific advance.”

“The one piece of information that patients are guaranteed to receive – the patient information leaflet – does not provide a balance appraisal of the benefits and harms of medicines and was described in our public dialogue as being 'impenetrable' and 'unreadable',” he added.

Information contains jargon and sparks confusion

Also, the information often describes how the medicine works in complicated biological terms as Prof Tooke says, “They aren't written from a consumer's perspective.” For example, the leaflet inside a paracetamol box says pancreatitis or hepatitis is possible side effects from taking the medication. However, there is no explanation as to what the conditions are or what the risk of getting them is.

One patient, Silvia Kirk took part in public workshops for the report. She commented, “I’ve often left my doctor's surgery with a prescription unsure why I needed the medicine, how it would make me feel and exactly when I should take it. This has left me confused about why the medicine is important for my health and unprepared for any side effects.”

She continued, “It is really hard to think of the right questions to ask in an appointment, especially as you usually visit the doctor when you aren't feeling well.”

To overcome this, the Academy has released a series of potential questions that the public can ask their doctors to aid in making informed decisions on whether to take some medicines.

Other issues surfaced in the report

The report also recommends GP appointments to be more efficient such as lengthening consultations for patients with multiple conditions. RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard stated that government needs to implement pledges in NHS England’s GP Forward View urgently, including increased funding and hiring more GPs and practice team members – to ensure patients have more time with family doctors, as well as receiving adequate care.

Additionally, the Academy reported that 82% of GPs and 67% of the public mistrusted clinical trials of medicines funded by the pharmaceutical industry because they believed they were biased.

When it comes to taking medicines, a third of the public trusted evidence from medical research while two-thirds trusted the experiences of family and friends. Experts are stressing on prioritising clear patient communication to tackle this. Prof Tooke included developing the NHS Choices website as a “repository of reliable, easy to understand, evidence” in the recommendations report.

Survey findings: What do scientists have to say?

Scientists mainly welcomed these recommendations – but acknowledged the presence of some uncertainty with the ever-evolving scientific research.

Dr Louise Brown, senior statistician at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at University College London, stated that there were other challenges to confront in regards to social media and the internet. “We are all bombarded with an unrelenting stream of new information that is overwhelming and very difficult to process. Unsurprisingly, this leads to feelings of scepticism and mistrust,” she said.

Peter Openshaw, professor at Imperial College London, said providing accessible and accurate information on new treatments was important. “It is only by working in close partnership with patients, clearly and honestly explaining the scientific evidence, that we can fully realise the huge potential that 21st Century medical science offers,” he explained. MIMS

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