Objective To determine how patients use patient information leaflets (PILs) for prescription medicines. Setting Community pharmacies and patients' homes in the North of England.

Method Patients were recruited as they collected their prescriptions, and telephoned about 7 days later. A structured telephone interview was administered with questions about how the PIL had been used (either this time or from previous prescriptions).

Key findings Structured telephone interviews were completed for 456 patients (81% of those who consented), with a mean age of 54 years. Almost all patients (97%) were aware of the leaflet, a significant improvement on previous studies. Thirty-five per cent said they had read at least some of the leaflet with this supply. However, this figure was 71% for first-time users, and 87% of repeat users said they had read the leaflet at some time in the past. Of repeat users, nearly 60% said they had never or rarely looked at the leaflet after the first time. The side-effects section was most commonly read, and the information in this section was the most common specific reason given for reading the PIL. Eleven per cent of first-time users and 15% of repeat users said they had at some time taken action as a result of reading the PIL.

Conclusions Almost all patients surveyed were aware of the PIL, showing that 8 years after becoming mandatory, the presence of the leaflets is now being felt. It is encouraging that most read the leaflet with the first supply, although the same cannot be assumed for very old individuals, who were under-represented. The fact that a majority taking a medicine long term did not read the leaflet again, after the first time, is a concern. Much will have been forgotten and some information may have changed. Pharmacists continue to have a role in encouraging the use of PILs.