Are patients told about medication side effects?

This indicator uses survey data to explore whether patients are told about medication side effects to watch for.



Last updated: 17/08/2023


National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines say that patients should be involved in decisions about medicines, and that the benefits, side effects and long-term effects of medicines should be discussed. This allows patients to make an informed choice and helps to increase adherence. Patients differ in the amount of information they wish to receive, but they should be told about significant adverse effects and what to do if they experience them.

One of the pledges in the NHS Constitution is to encourage feedback on health and care experiences and use this to improve services. Here we look at responses from national patient experience surveys that ask patients whether members of staff told them about medication side effects to watch for. 

Patients informed about medication side effects by NHS service

The Urgent and Emergency Care Survey and Adult Inpatient Survey ask respondents whether a member of staff told them about medication side effects to watch for when they went home from hospital. In 2022, less than half (42%) of Urgent and Emergency Care Survey respondents who were prescribed any new medication said that a member of staff ‘completely’ told them about medication side effects to watch for, and 40% said they were not told. Only 37% of Adult Inpatient Survey respondents in 2019 who were given medicines to take at home said they were ‘completely’ told about side effects to watch for, and a larger proportion (44%) said that they were not told. In 2021, only a quarter (25%) of Adult Inpatient Survey respondents received an explanation of the side effects (data not shown).

The Community Mental Health Survey asks respondents who have been receiving medication for their mental health needs in the past 12 months, “Have the possible side effects of your medicines ever been discussed with you?”. In 2022, less than half (43%) of respondents said that they were ‘definitely’ told about possible medication side effects, while a third (33%) were told ‘to some extent’ about possible side effects. Learning about the side effects of medication is important for tailoring the prescription to suit the individual and avoid serious complications. For more information on side effects for psychiatric medication, refer to this resource by Mind.

For more information about when fieldwork for the surveys took place, see ‘About this data’. Note that differences in responses between the surveys may reflect the demographics of respondents, as well as their experience of services. Additionally, the surveys were carried out in different time periods and so the data is not directly comparable.

Inpatients informed about medication side effects upon discharge

Until 2019, Adult Inpatient Survey respondents were asked, “Did a member of staff tell you about medication side effects to watch for when you went home?”. The proportion of respondents who said that a member of staff ‘completely’ told them about side effects to watch for increased slightly from 36% in 2009 to 39% in 2015, but decreased again to 37% in 2019. 

In 2020, respondents were asked about the information they were given about any medicines they were to take home, and just 28% said they received an explanation of the side effects. In 2021, this decreased to 25%. Furthermore, 63% said they were given an explanation of the purpose of the medication, 52% were told how to take it, but 13% were given no information about their prescribed medicine (data not shown).

About this data

These indicators draw on data from the Adult Inpatient Survey, the Urgent and Emergency Care Survey and the Community Mental Health Survey.

For each survey, two weights have been applied to the survey results data:

·       a trust weight to ensure that each trust contributes equally to the England average, and 

·       a population weight, to make sure each trust’s results are representative of their own sample and do not over-represent particular groups, such as older respondents. 

A combination of the two weights results in one single weighting, which has been applied to enable comparisons between years.

Our comparison across NHS services does not adjust for differences in survey populations; therefore, the results are not directly comparable.

For the 2021 Adult Inpatient Survey, patients aged 16 and over were eligible to take part if they were treated in hospital during November 2021. Fieldwork (the time during which questionnaires are sent out and returned) took place between January 2022 and May 2022. Since the questions, terminology and methodology used in the survey administered in 2020 were updated, the results from 2020 onwards are not comparable with previous years.

For the 2022 Community Mental Health Survey, people were eligible if they received treatment for a mental health condition between September 2021 and November 2021. Fieldwork took place between February 2022 and June 2022. 

For the 2022 Urgent and Emergency Care Survey, a sample of people aged 16 and over took part if they attended a Type 1 urgent and emergency care service provided by an acute trust in September 2022. Fieldwork took place between November 2022 and March 2023.

For more information please see Care Quality Commission, Surveys.