Additionally, the study from the Stanford University School of Medicine, found that women were able to correctly identify the possible benefits and risks linked to hormone therapy just 40 percent of the time.
Senior author Randall Stafford, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, said that the new study indicates that the medical profession hasn't yet worked out an effective way of communicating key health information to patients.
"This study suggests that we have a flawed mechanism for getting information down to the level of the population. Although we looked specifically at menopause and hormone therapy, the findings have consequences for many other medical issues," Stafford said.
The 2002 study results reported by the federally funded Women's Health Initiative, are the longest-ever examination of the health of postmenopausal women.
In July 2002, the WHI abruptly halted the arm of the study dealing with the combination of estrogen and progestin therapy after initial data showed women taking the hormones were experiencing higher rates of breast cancer, heart attack, stroke and blood clots than those taking placebos.
In April 2004, the WHI halted the portion of the study for estrogen-only therapy, finding that the hormone did not offer any benefit in terms of heart disease prevention while increasing the risk of stroke and blood clots.
The WHI findings were the subject of unprecedented media coverage and triggered enormous changes in the use of hormone therapy.
Although WHI changed the prescribing patterns of physicians, Stafford wanted to find out how well the findings stuck in the minds of U.S. women. To determine this, he and his team conducted a nationally representative survey of 781 women between the ages of 40 and 60 in June 2004 - two years after the estrogen-progestin results were announced, and two months after the estrogen-only findings.
Results showed that only 29 percent of the women knew about WHI, and that the level of awareness was lowest among younger women, African-American women and those with less education. Stafford said the low level of knowledge about the WHI and the effects of hormone therapy may reflect that people don't always heed medical news unless it relates to their current medical problems.
Additionally, he found that women who lived in large households knew less about WHI and hormone therapy than women who lived alone, indicating that these women may have put the health needs of their spouses and children ahead of their own.
Stafford said his study is indicative of a larger problem - namely, ensuring that people can make informed decisions about their medical care.
"It's a particularly relevant issue because of the increasing burden of chronic disease. Right now, we're not successful in educating the population about health issues that will become increasingly common and increasingly complex in the future," he said.
The study results are published in the September/October issue of the journal Menopause.