Good health information can empower individuals to make choices, help them navigate a complex health system, to understand their health and that of their family, and to be confident and skilled health services users. Evidence increasingly shows that the right information, given to the right person at the right time, can have a significant impact on their well-being and there is some evidence that it can have an impact on health outcomes too.
However, anyone who writes or produces health information or who runs information services will tell you that producing high quality, meaningful information that genuinely meets the needs of users isn’t easy. Getting information into the hands of individuals at the right time and in the right place can also be a challenge, as is ensuring information is routinely provided and supported by health professionals. And how do we know what anyone does with the information they are given – does it change their behaviour, or affect their choices?
Producing and providing high quality health information is a skill, one which takes practice, experience and reflective thoughtful evaluation to get right. But, there are some basic principles which underlie the production and provision of all high quality information, and if you can get these foundations right, you are making a good start.
These cover four key areas:
- Involve users in creating health information
- Produce accurate and reliable health information
- Communicate information clearly
- Ensure information has impact and relevance
- Understand your audience
The most successful information is specifically targeted. Whatever you are producing or whatever service you are providing, it’s vital that you know who your audience is and what they need and want. You can never assume that what you think someone needs to know is really what they want or need to know. Take the time to get to know your service users, understand what their priorities are, what concerns them, where and how they access information and what messages they may respond to.
- Know your objectives
What do you want your information resource or service to do? Are you simply spreading information, or do you want someone to act? Is the resource a vehicle to aid decision making, or are you trying to change behaviour? Do you want something to be different after someone has read or used your information? Be very clear about what you want to achieve and think about how you tailor your information to meet your objectives. Remember to plan your evaluation so that you will know if you have succeeded.
- Support your information
Information on its own isn’t particularly effective. It needs to be supported in some way. People need to be able to absorb information, ask questions, reflect on what they have learned and check their understanding. In some cases they will need support and encouragement to act. So, consider who will support your information and how – will you ask health professionals or support staff to use and advocate your information, will you set up your own support services such as a helpline, online community or support group?
- Involve your users
Do this at every stage. From planning through to evaluation, by regularly involving your users in creative and accessible ways you can ensure that you meet their needs and respond quickly to changes in thinking or attitudes. Make sure you involve all your users, not just patients – don’t forget to include carers, families, health professionals or other key stakeholders or users.
- Get the evidence right
High quality health information is based on high quality evidence. Carry out a thorough search for evidence, use the best quality evidence base available – for example, systematic reviews and evidence from good quality peer review journals. Use more than one source of evidence where possible. In areas where the evidence is not clear or is poor, say so. Don’t forget that not all evidence is clinical evidence – patient experience, expert opinion and ‘collective wisdom’ can all be types of evidence.
- Keep up to date
Things can change quickly in health. New treatments, research and services arrive every day so it is important to make sure your information keeps pace with the changes. At the very least information usually needs reviewing and updating every two years. The public expects information on websites or in a digital format to be updated and added to much more regularly. Make sure everything you produce has a date of publication on it, and preferably a date for review. Have a schedule of updates and reviews so that nothing gets missed.
- Take account of health literacy
Health literacy is the ability to read, understand and use health information. Anyone at anytime can have poor health literacy, regardless of their background, experience and educational level. Today’s health service is complex, treatments develop rapidly and the public is deluged with information from many different sources. Attempting to make sense of what we are told and understand what our choices are, often requires a high degree of health literacy. Therefore, it is incumbent on every health information producer to create resources that are clear, easily understood and relevant to the user.
- Personalise information
One size does not fit all and everyone has different information needs. The most relevant information you can give is information that personalised or tailored to an individual. However, this can be a challenge to achieve. Meeting the needs of each individual mans building in a high degree of flexibility to the way that you provide information. People’s appetite for information fluctuates and getting the level of detail right is also important. Providing information that supports a range of needs from simple to in-depth, and which allows people to access just the amount of the information they want, at the time they need it, is an important aspect of information provision. New technologies can be a useful tool to help you do this.
- Plan thoroughly
If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know if you have got there? All good information takes planning; including research, talking to stakeholders and users, securing funding, developing a budget and deciding how you will disseminate and evaluate the resource or service. Develop your own systems and procedures, follow a step by step plan and invest in time to think. By planning well, you are more likely to be successful, because you have thought it through, considered the potential risks and pulled together the right resources and people to help you.
- Measure what you’re doing and what impact you’re having
Finally, evaluation is the foundation of effective health information. It enables you to see whether the information is designed, written and disseminated in an effective way, helps you to review and improve what you offer and helps to show that you are meeting needs – a useful thing when you are applying for funds or building the business case for your information services. Evaluation is also important for answering the ‘so what’ questions – so you gave your information to lots of people – so what? Did they use it or read it, if they did what did they do with it? Did it change their behaviour, improve their skills, confidence or understanding? Find evidence which shows you are making a difference.