Why medical information will get better


Thomas Heath 2012

I’ve been taking pills. They’ve done wonders for my backache. And the name of this rejuvenating cure is ‘Rheumatac Retard 75’.

Rheumatac Retard. Can you feel the healing power? The warm glow of wellbeing? Me neither. Describing medicines has been a litigious, closely guarded business for as long as people have been taking them. So we get this odd language, locked down by regulation and detached from its audience.

But things have got better. Last week the British National Formulary published new guidelines on medicine instruction labels, based directly on user testing. The researchers found some people misunderstood phrases such as ‘avoid alcoholic drink’, but were clear if told ‘don’t drink alcohol while taking this medicine.’

Then there are Patient Information Leaflets (PILs) — those cleverly folded sheets of smallprint you get with every box of medicine. If you’re writing a PIL it must now be tested to prove patients can understand it. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s report Always Read the Leaflet has enough good advice on this to overwhelm most writers.

But there’s a bigger force on the side of clear patient information: the democratic power of the Internet.

Thanks to Google, we’re coming to expect that we can quickly find technical information on anything — a fridge, a bank account, a cure for backache — and that it’ll be written in a way we can understand.

Gerry McGovern points out that this knowledge was previously trapped inside a manual in a box sold with the product. But now it’s available online before we buy — and we’re judging products on the quality of this information.

This has massive implications for the way we choose and use every kind of product, including medicines. Ultimately, those who describe medical products will be forced to include patients in the conversation, not just because of regulation, but to avoid a more basic threat: being ignored.

Thomas Heath