The UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) needs to do more to inform the public about how medicines are regulated and, most importantly, what to do if something goes wrong, says the Agency in its new communications strategy policy covering its activities to March 2010.

The MHRA set up its Communications Division in April 2005, and says its first-ever communications strategy, agreed in July that year, has produced major improvements, including the launch of a new, unified Agency brand.

However, there is still much to do, it adds, and acknowledges that “brand awareness of the Agency amongst the public is probably less important than overall confidence in the regulatory system, and knowledge of where to turn if faced with a problem.”

The Agency also says it needs to do more with healthcare professionals, recognising that they have different information needs and targeting them accordingly. In particular, it says, pharmacists are well-trusted by the public as a source of information on the risks and benefits of medicines, and pharmacists’ awareness and trust in the MHRA are high, yet in many cases their use of the Agency as an information source appears to be low.

Performance recovery a priority for 2007/8

However, the MHRA also stresses that, for 2007/8 at least, its second priority will be on performance recovery and achieving financial stability, in order to address significant backlogs in certain areas of the medicines licensing process which are “unacceptable, not only to industry but also to patients.” Therefore, during 2007/8 (Phase I of the strategy) the Agency will have no additional resources to invest in communications activity.

Nevertheless, its key strategic priorities out to 2010 are to:

- Target information at healthcare professionals to: achieve a sustained increase in “meaningful incoming traffic” (eg. Yellow Cards and adverse incident reports), and promote the safe use of medicines and devices;

- Target information at the public to: achieve a sustained increase in meaningful incoming traffic (eg. reports of adverse events), promote the safe use of medicines and devices (eg. caution in using the Internet, reading the leaflet/instructions, awareness about counterfeit products, seeking and requesting appropriate information from the Agency), and promote more informed decision-making by patients;

- Improve understanding of the benefit/risk balance of medicines and devices among the public and/or healthcare professionals by identifying priority groups where understanding is currently low and targeting these groups with information; and

- Increase patient and public engagement in the Agency’s work to establish greater credibility of the process and improve the decision-making process.

Informing through soaps, daytime TV

These priorities will be supported in Phase I by:

- Improving the network of links between the Agency’s website and others, in order to drive traffic towards authoritative sources of information;

- A watching brief on initiatives to improve patient access to information and to ensure the Agency plays a role in such initiatives, where appropriate;

- A media strategy focused on addressing and informing the public through a wide range of media channels, including those which are non-news based, such as soaps and daytime television;

- A pilot project to review and redesign the agency’s day-to-day communications with pharmacists;

- Maintaining a programme of conferences and events, with - as a particular focus on performance recovery - working with industry on improving the efficiency of the medicines licensing progress;

Continuing a regular programme of meetings with industry associations to ensure that regulations keep pace with scientific developments, ensure appropriate dialog and keep industry informed of progress with performance recovery; and

- Undertake a speaking programme focussed on the Agency and its work.

In Phase II of the strategy (2008 onwards), as funding becomes available, the Agency plans to:

- Undertake a programme of day-to-day communications with pharmacists and surgeons about medicines and devices, as a precursor to further work with other professional groups;

- Identify areas of the website which need additional content;

- Develop the website to meet Royal National Institute of Blind Peple (RNIB) accessibility standards, as a top priority;

- Implement at least 10 not-for-profit seminars for healthcare professionals, to address their information needs and raise awareness of how they and they MHRA can work together more closely;

- Develop the Agency’s document on weighing risks and benefits through round-table discussions with stakeholder groups; and

- Develop a virtual panel of public and patients to ensure input into key Agency decisions.

The success of the new strategy will be evaluated after 18 months and three years, the Agency says.