A survey from Switzerland suggests that the general public, including those with some medical knowledge, has very limited knowledge about important signs and risk factors of major medical conditions. The authors suggest that everyone needs a set level of health knowledge about major medical conditions, both to reduce their risk of developing them and increase their chance of seeking medical help when appropriate. They therefore carried out a survey to determine whether ordinary people had this level of knowledge for four conditions. They defined a 'minimum medical knowledge' (MMK) set for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), HIV infection, heart attack and stroke, using several experts each field, and developed a questionnaire to determine how much people knew of this. They hypothesised that people with personal experience or some degree of medical training would reach this level more often than those without. The survey was carried out by face to face interview with randomly chosen participants in six busy locations in Zurich. Basic questions included level of education, medical or paramedical background, and personal experience of the conditions involved within their social environment.
Of 272 people approached, 185 (68%) were willing to take part; mean age was 37, and the gender balance was about equal; 84 (46%) had education to degree level, 34 (18%) some medical or paramedical background, and 96 (52%) had some personal experience of one of the conditions. No subject scored 100% MMK: the mean score was 32% and the highest score achieved was 72% (with the minimum 0%). Those with a degree and those with personal experience only scored marginally higher than the mean, as did those with a medical or paramedical background.
The authors conclude that in this population they found a considerable level of ignorance in relation to the symptoms of and risks for frequently found and important illnesses; unexpectedly, personal or professional exposure to the illnesses made only a small difference. They comment that there is little published data in this area, but suggest that they would have expected their results to be better as in the Swiss healthcare system good health knowledge could reduce personal financial costs. In systems where patients have no co-payments, the level of knowledge may be even lower. They suggest that further research is needed, especially comparing different health systems.
BMC Medicine 2007; 5: 14. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-5-14 (link to full text, freely available)