People who are the poorest in society, belonging to the unskilled and manual groups - the most vulnerable to disease - were the least likely to get health information from television, radio, magazines and newspapers, the OHE found.
Higher social groups rated newspapers and television only one point behind GPs as a source of information. GPs were seen as the 'most trusted and respected' source of information.
But the research shows that the lower social groups are further disadvantaged because their family doctors tend to give them fewer explanations about their condition during consultations.
The lower-class women had 5 minutes with their doctor, while higher-class women had 7.6 minutes. The comparable figures for men were 5.4 and 6.7 minutes.
The OHE briefing paper, Health Information and the Consumer, argues that its findings have implications for the Government's 'Health of the Nation' targets, many of which seek changes in lifestyle as a means of reducing incidence rates and deaths from common diseases.
The survey found that all sources of written information were considered more useful by professional classes who used a wide range of sources. The poorest working-class people had a limited range of information sources, with their family doctor and television being the most popular.
The report says that it is difficult to see how patients can be expected to make a decison over their health or change their lifestyle when they do not understand the message.
'To change an individual's lifestyle, it is necessary for the individual to understand the health message and accept the relevance for their own lives. Some physicians are discouraged by this lack of response so believe that their responsibility ends there,' the report says. 'The overwhelming response was that the majority of people do feel that their GPs listen to their problems, although, worryingly over a quarter of women aged 25 to 34 do not believe this to be the case.'
The paper speculates that this may be an effect of increasing awareness in younger people, resulting in a loss of status for doctors and greater readiness to criticise treatment as a result.
For the survey, 1,200 men and women aged 15 to 65 and over were asked about their last GP visit and how useful they found information.
The report says lifestyle can be changed for the better by health education, citing the move towards polyunsaturated fats in the diet and increases in consumption of bran and high-fibre food.
It concludes, confirming the results of other studies, that GPs are best placed to deliver health messages as long as they continue to monitor their patients over a period of time.
Health Information and the Consumer; Office of Health Economics, 12 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY; pounds 5.Reuse content