Beyond the patient information leaflet

I suffer from perennial allergic rhinitis (aka annoying blocked nose, all the time).

I also happen to work in the healthcare industry, developing accessible patient support.

It struck me the other day when I opened my repeat prescription of nasal spray (yes, lovely) that the only ‘support’ a lot of patients get is a flimsy folded piece of paper in the prescription box. The so-called patient information leaflet, or PIL.

In this season of brand planning for pharmaceutical teams – when that sales force materials needs updating and you need something eye-catching at the next conference – it’ easy to fall back on the PIL as doing a ‘good enough’ job at patient support.

And that’ a perfectly rational position – after all, budgets are finite!

The PILs don’t work

But there’ a problem. When it comes to helping patients understand and manage their condition, countless studies show the PIL isn’t doing the job.

Just recently, the Academy of Medical Sciences published a report describing the “jargon overload” of PILs and the “undue anxiety” caused by the side effect information included in leaflets. Other research confirms that patients find the PIL discouraging to use, and information difficult to find and understand. Crucially, many patients rely on alternative information sources.

Luckily, there’ plenty of guidance, research and best practice on what makes an engaging PIL*, not least of which is to include the end-user in the design of the leaflet.

At ARK Comms, we believe that every opportunity you have to give a patient a better chance of understanding their condition and medication should be taken. So improving the PIL is a no brainer.

The perfect PIL is still hard to swallow

But is that flimsy and often slightly creased leaflet really enough?

Ask your friends and family – or even better patients who use your product – how many retain the leaflet? How many actually even give more than a cursory glance?

Yes, better layout, typography, structure, language, etc. will all help to make the PIL more comprehensible. But no matter the improvements, the fundamental form of the PIL will be unchanged – it will still have to be folded multiple times and stuffed into the cardboard box the medication comes in.

And that too is a problem. Again to the evidence: studies show that people don’t always highly value the PILs they receive, are put off by the perceived poor quality of the paper stock and print quality of the PIL, and often throw them away.

While many do value the PIL, there’ a clear need to think beyond this folded piece of paper to add genuine value.

Beyond the PIL

Why? It’ the stuff you already know inside-out as a marketer – people value things that look and feel quality; that look like love and care has gone into them; and that have been developed with a particular patient’ needs in mind.

Like sales materials or conference stands, patient materials need craft to stand out – a little bit of va va voom.

Of course we’re preaching to the converted to some reading this. Many brands are already switched on to the value of patient information, support and services.

Even to those converts though, we’d sound a note of caution. Think about the statistic on our homepage – fewer than half of UK adults understand the health information given to them at the moment.

Turn the va va voom volume too high while forgoing a bit of serious thinking on what patients really need and understand, and you might get something awfully pretty but awfully unhelpful.

But get it right, and your patient support could be making a genuine difference to your patients lives – and in the end, that’ what it all about isn’t it?


Oliver Childs
Health Information Director

*See for example the MHRA ‘Always read the leaflet’ guidance – and ask us if you want a longer list of guidance or research!