How useful are post consultation letters to patients?
- Equal contributors
NHLI Division, Imperial College London, Respiratory Health Services Research Group, Charing Cross Hospital, St Dunstans Road, London, W6 8RP, UK
BMC Medicine 2006, 4:2 doi:10.1186/1741-7015-4-2Published: 20 January 2006
As part of the NHS plan it was suggested that all patients receive copies of letters sent to their General Practitioner following outpatient consultations. The former Secretary of State for Health extended this proposal, suggesting that patients have a specific letter to themselves after a hospital consultation.
The aim of this study was to send cardiorespiratory patients attending Charing Cross Hospital, a copy of the letter sent to their G.P. plus a specific letter to themselves and to assess the usefulness and comprehensibility of each. The letters were analysed for dictation time, Flesch Reading Ease Score, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and word count. Eighty-four out of 105 sequential patients (80%) consented and were sent both types of letter after their attendance. Patients returned both letters circling any items they did not understand and stated a preference for the GP letter, patient letter, or both. The patients' GPs were subsequently also asked for their views on each letter.
GP letters took significantly longer to dictate than patient letters. The Flesch Reading Ease Score was significantly higher in the patient letters, indicating that the patient letters were easier to read. The GP letters were significantly longer than the patient letters and patients were significantly more likely to circle more items in the GP letters (p < 0.001). The content of letters is sometimes inaccurate. Thirty-six out of 62 patients (58%) would like to receive both letters, 13/62 (21.6%) would prefer the GP letter and 13/62 (20%) wanted only the patient letter. 45 GPs replied (62.5%), 28/45 (62.5%) wanted the GP letter, 14 GPs (31.1%) wanted both letters and 3/45 (6.7%) wanted the patient letter only. General themes concerned insufficient clinical details and the GPs preferred the structure of the letters written to them.
Patients appreciate copies of the letter being sent to their GP but comprehension is less good than with a shorter letter written especially to the patient. More attention needs to be paid to making letters to GPs simpler to read without losing the structure and detail liked by GPs. A compromise might be to dictate the letter in front of the patient and to provide a speciality-specific glossary to accompany each letter.