Perspectives on 'Communicating evidence about medicines'

Professor Theresa Marteau FMedSci discusses a workshop she chaired exploring the communication of evidence about medicines.

To make genuinely informed decisions about treatment options, patients need accurate and balanced information about the potential benefits and harms of medicines. However, simply relaying information to patients is not sufficient: communication should instead be done in a way that ensures that individuals both understand and trust the information provided.

On 6 June 2016 I chaired a one-day workshop held at the Academy of Medical Sciences on ‘Communicating evidence about medicines’, which aimed to explore how best to present quantitative evidence about medicines to facilitate understanding and trustworthiness. The workshop is part of a larger work stream exploring ‘How can we all best use evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicines?'

One of the key themes to emerge from the workshop was that the aim of communicating quantitative evidence about medicine is to empower patients to make informed decisions about their treatment options. Therefore, effective communication should include both the potential benefits and potential  harms of a medicine, as well as a discussion of the uncertainty of the evidence.

To support effective communication of quantitative evidence, a number of recommendations have previously been suggested. Key recommendations include the use of absolute risk instead of relative risk, use of tables and graphics, and avoidance of qualitative terms such as ‘low risk’. Standard communication practices such as layering of information - from summaries to increasingly detailed information - can also enhance understanding.

The workshop heard about a number of initiatives that have put several of these recommendations into practice. One example was the US based Drug Fact Boxes, which present information about the potential benefits and harms of medicines in a clear and appealing way. In addition, digital tools such as the interactive evidence to decision framework (iEtD) offer more interactive and personalised ways of presenting information. Another key outcome of the workshop was that involving potential users throughout the design process is vital for the development of communication tools.

It was recognised that individuals receive information about medicines from a range of different sources including healthcare professionals, government bodies, pharmaceutical companies, mainstream media, and friends and family. The extent to which these influence decision making depends on the perceived trustworthiness of each source. Each of these sources offers opportunities for improved communication, but the mainstream media was highlighted as being particularly influential for shaping perceptions about medicines. This is something that was also raised during an earlier roundtable meeting held jointly with the Science Media Centre, as part of the wider ‘How can we all best use evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicines?' workstream.

However, good practice by the information provider can only take you so far because communication also depends on the information recipient. Information providers should be aware that an individual’s personal values, preconceptions, and perceptions of information sources all impact on their decision-making. In addition, information providers are influenced by their own perceptions which will shape the information they provide and the manner in which they do so.

Informing individuals about how evidence is generated could help correct misconceptions and better equip individuals to interpret evidence about medicines. Delegates suggested that this could usefully be incorporated at school in teaching about scientific methods

Information providers are faced with a seemingly impossible task of synthesising all the relevant information about a medicine and presenting it in an accessible and non-directive manner. There has been much research and discussion on communicating quantitative evidence over the last few decades, but now this knowledge needs to be put into practice in a reliable and consistent fashion. As discussed above, clear guidelines, new communication tools and improved education may all aid the effective communication of evidence about the potential benefits and harms of medicines.

A report summarising the discussions held at the 'Communicating evidence about medicines' workshop is available to download from the right hand side of our dedicated policy page.

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