Primary care trusts and social care providers have been urged to fund a joint information service for patients and carers on the services in their area.

Picker Institute Europe's report Accessing Information About Health and Social Care Services criticises PCTs and GPs for being unaware of which social care and voluntary sector services are available locally.

The institute has called for a one-stop shop in each PCT, with trained staff to help people navigate the information.

The report is based on research commissioned by the Department of Health, which found that GPs do not systematically or proactively give patients information on accessing local services. The findings also showed a lack of co-ordination between health and social care across boundaries.

'Patients and service users - and their families and carers - need timely, personalised help to navigate the routes to relevant information,' the report says. 'They should not be abandoned at the point of diagnosis or when moving across sectoral boundaries (for example, from healthcare into social care) or when relocating geographically.'

Focus groups were held with service users and carers to determine their information needs and problems. Mystery shopping assessments were then used to determine how easy it was for these groups to find information.

Meanwhile, local health and social care professionals and information providers were surveyed to gauge how well informed they were.

Picker Institute Europe chief executive Angela Coulter said: 'Potential service users were frequently pushed from person to person, or from organisation to organisation. They were often left dangling by calls that went unanswered. They encountered sheer brick walls. Too often the services supposed to help people in real need throw them back on their own resources.

Patients, service users and carers are left standing at a crossroads in their lives with no signposts to information about the kinds of support they say are vital.'

The most common requests for information were for local voluntary and support groups, nursing or respite care, medicines, specialist healthcare and financial benefits.

The report notes that the research may have under-reported difficulties because the participants were experienced at looking for information, articulate and assertive. First-time searchers and disadvantaged groups are likely to struggle more.

Ms Coulter said local information services as recommended by the report would work alongside a national information service, such as the Healthy Choices website.

'Not everyone has internet access and people value face to face contact' she said.