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OBJECTIVE: To examine the current scale of provision of patient information materials by consultant surgeons in UK NHS and private sector hospitals. DESIGN: Secondary analysis of the responses of 12,555 surgical patients to surveys evaluating surgical services provided by specific consultants. SETTING: 7 NHS Trusts and one private sector hospital distributed throughout the UK. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Provision of information materials by hospital, surgeon, and case-mix. Comparison of this service with patients' evaluations of surgeons' verbal communication in the outpatient clinic. RESULTS: Great variation exists between surgeons of the same specialty, and between hospital surgical directorates as a whole in the routine provision of supportive information materials to patients undergoing surgery. This variation cannot be explained solely by clinical need. Patients treated in private hospitals were less likely to receive information materials compared to patients treated within the NHS. CONCLUSIONS: Provision of printed information materials to patients by clinicians appears to be arbitrary. With the prospect of national performance frameworks in the foreseeable future, it is reasonable to assume that not only will the content of patient information be determined by quality standards but, in addition, its availability will be decided by clinical need rather than the clinician's preferences or interests.