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The new role of GPs: information prescriber

By Michael Guida, Health Strategist

Finding the right good quality health information is getting harder by the day for the public. GPs have an important new role in directing patients to NHS and charity websites, but this is not yet part of the 'information revolution' that we have been promised. Patients simply can't make better choices or manage their health if they are just let loose on the internet.

Our research with the public suggests that people rely heavily on their GP for reassurance and trust their advice more than internet resources they find themselves. Perhaps this should be no surprise, but the public still don't think of the NHS as an information provider and are often left to find and interpret information on their own.

Information empowerment or overload?

With health information there has been an over-reliance on what cost-cutters call a 'self-service' approach and the internet has been seen as the place where people can help and educate themselves. However, too often health information has been stuck on NHS websites and left there to be found (and there are thousands of .nhs.uk websites). Worryingly, there is little evidence that any of these websites are being used.

With some 50,000 health and social care organisations all trying to get the attention of the public there is plenty of stuff out there. But as the internet fills up with more health content and opinion, there is an urgent need for direction and recommendation from GPs and other care professionals. The recent Bupa and London School of Economics international health survey found that only a quarter of the people surveyed checked the reliability of health information they found online by looking at the credibility of the source.

Research from GE in the US has shown that while more of the public find the internet empowering than they do overwhelming, it's the opposite for doctors. Almost all doctors found it hard to know what information online could be trusted and the majority said the internet has made their job more difficult.

GPs are going to need some help themselves if they are to be able to support the public in this new way.While GPs worry about the internet being a threat to their long-held expert status and its use for self diagnosis, now is the time to influence the kind of information the public are consuming.

Make the most of NHS and charity information

There is one place where NHS information and data have been carefully gathered together and packaged in ahighly useable format. It's called NHS Choices and is the definitive guide to health in England. Strangely enough, few GPs or the public know about or use it. Searching in Google on a condition like 'Asthma' tends to find charities and Wikipedia, not informationon NHS Choices.

Whatever you think about the name, NHS Choices has become an authoritative health encyclopaedia with an A to Z of conditions and treatments, a local services finder and hospital comparison tools. Costing £20 million a year and run by Capita, it really needs to be put to good use.

NHS Choices should be a best friend to GPs, not a threat, but only if they use it in consultations. We find that the public are often intimidated by health information online so it needs to be served up gently and with professional guidance. When it comes to making decisions about which hospital to go to, interpreting the complex performance data that NHS Choices publishes needs the expert eye of a GP too.

In fact, condition information from Patient UK is more readily printed out by GPs than NHS-approved information, partly because it's part of the EMIS care records system and is easily to hand.

Doctors also recommend charity websites to those with chronic conditions, in preference to NHS sites, because charities can have such a special focus. If there is going to be less investment in NHS data and information in the coming years and more reliance on third party sources, again GPs will need to be up to speed on where to direct patients.

Will GP consortia websites be the answer? It seems unlikely. GPs already have their own sites and the new consortia websites are likely to be more useful for professional and business takeholders rather than the public. Certainly these new sites will suffer the same challenges that PCT sites faced, chiefly the lack of public brand-awareness and a difficulty being found in Google.

GP consultations are part of a health conversation that should include the right high-quality information. Patients have been left to fend for themselves on the internet for too long. If they are to take responsibility for their own health the public will need a little help from their friendly GP. Gone are the days when it was enough to write the name of a condition on a Post-it note and say: "Google it".