Interventions before healthcare consultations for helping patients get the information they require

Patients often report that they want more information from their healthcare providers or that the information they do receive does not address their needs. Generally, the amount of information given is small. People have differing needs for information, which also varies with the specific illness, but providing information is important as it helps patients recall, understand and follow treatment advice and be more satisfied. Clinicians may underestimate or undervalue the information needs of patients. They may also lack the skills to give information effectively. Training doctors and nurses probably helps, but another approach is to try to directly help patients ask questions in their consultations. This can be done by various methods such as question prompt sheets (which encourage patients to write down their questions) or coaching (when someone helps the patient to think of the questions they want to ask). This review evaluated studies of these types of interventions.

We identified 33 randomised controlled trials involving 8244 patients from six countries, mainly the USA, in a range of clinical settings. Most interventions, which included written materials (for example, question prompt sheets) and coaching sessions, were delivered in the waiting room immediately before the consultation. They were compared to dummy interventions or usual care. Health issues included primary care and family medicine, cancer, diabetes, heart problems, women's issues, peptic ulcer and mental illness.

We found small increases in question asking and patient satisfaction and a possible reduction in patient anxiety before and after consultations. We also found a possible reduction in patient knowledge and a possible small increase in consultation length. Both coaching and written materials produced similar effects on asking questions but coaching had a larger benefit in terms of patient satisfaction. Interventions immediately before the consultation led to a small increase in patient satisfaction whereas giving the intervention some time before did not. Interventions immediately before the consultation also resulted in small increases in consultation length, particularly when using written materials rather than coaching. Interventions some time before the consultation did not alter consultation time.

The interventions seem to help patients ask more questions in consultations, but do not have other clear benefits. Doctors and nurses need to continue to try to help their patients ask questions in consultations and question prompt sheets or coaching may help in some circumstances.

Authors' conclusions: 

Interventions before consultations designed to help patients address their information needs within consultations produce limited benefits to patients. Further research could explore whether the quality of questions is increased, whether anxiety before consultations is reduced, the effects on other outcomes and the impact of training and the timing of interventions. More studies need to consider the timing of interventions and possibly the type of training provided to clinicians.

Read the full abstract...

Patients often do not get the information they require from doctors and nurses. To address this problem, interventions directed at patients to help them gather information in their healthcare consultations have been proposed and tested.


To assess the effects on patients, clinicians and the healthcare system of interventions which are delivered before consultations, and which have been designed to help patients (and/or their representatives) address their information needs within consultations.

Search strategy: 

We searched: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library (issue 3 2006); MEDLINE (1966 to September 2006); EMBASE (1980 to September 2006); PsycINFO (1985 to September 2006); and other databases, with no language restriction. We also searched reference lists of articles and related reviews, and handsearched Patient Education and Counseling (1986 to September 2006).

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of interventions before consultations designed to encourage question asking and information gathering by the patient.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two researchers assessed the search output independently to identify potentially-relevant studies, selected studies for inclusion, and extracted data. We conducted a narrative synthesis of the included trials, and meta-analyses of five outcomes.

Main results: 

We identified 33 randomised controlled trials, from 6 countries and in a range of settings. A total of 8244 patients was randomised and entered into studies. The most common interventions were question checklists and patient coaching. Most interventions were delivered immediately before the consultations.

Commonly-occurring outcomes were: question asking, patient participation, patient anxiety, knowledge, satisfaction and consultation length. A minority of studies showed positive effects for these outcomes. Meta-analyses, however, showed small and statistically significant increases for question asking (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.27 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.19 to 0.36)) and patient satisfaction (SMD 0.09 (95% CI 0.03 to 0.16)). There was a notable but not statistically significant decrease in patient anxiety before consultations (weighted mean difference (WMD) -1.56 (95% CI -7.10 to 3.97)). There were small and not statistically significant changes in patient anxiety after consultations (reduced) (SMD -0.08 (95%CI -0.22 to 0.06)), patient knowledge (reduced) (SMD -0.34 (95% CI -0.94 to 0.25)), and consultation length (increased) (SMD 0.10 (95% CI -0.05 to 0.25)). Further analyses showed that both coaching and written materials produced similar effects on question asking but that coaching produced a smaller increase in consultation length and a larger increase in patient satisfaction.

Interventions immediately before consultations led to a small and statistically significant increase in consultation length, whereas those implemented some time before the consultation had no effect. Both interventions immediately before the consultation and those some time before it led to small increases in patient satisfaction, but this was only statistically significant for those immediately before the consultation. There appear to be no clear benefits from clinician training in addition to patient interventions, although the evidence is limited.