The disturbing discovery that only about one third of the UK population trusted medical evidence and that two-thirds relied on the opinions of friends and family as their preferred sources of information, runs through a major new report by the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. Recent controversies around the benefits and harms of treatments such as statins, hormone replacement therapy and Tamiflu also highlighted the need for action.
“Enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms
of medicines” was published in June this year. It is the result of ‘a project to examine how the generation, trustworthiness and communication of scientific evidence can be enhanced to strengthen its role in decisions by patients, carers, healthcare professionals and others about the benefits and harms of medicines.’ These are some of the headline proposals to address real and perceived weaknesses in medical research, evidence and their communication:
- Involvement of patients, carers and the wider public in research
- Enhanced training in research methods and use of statistics
- Support for new study designs and new methodologies, such as health apps and wearable technologies
- The provision of evidence that is accessible, assessable and usable by the intended audience
- Frameworks in which researchers can declare and manage interests
- Presentation of scientific evidence in a clear, accessible and usable way
- Improvements in patient information leaflets to include a balanced and easily understandable appraisal of medicines
- A ‘traffic light’ system for press releases indicating how likely the research is to improve clinical practice in the near future and the robustness of the research
- Codes of practice for all generators and communicators of research evidence to convey accurate, assessable and balanced information to the public.
There is also a proposal that a single, reliable, high profile, go-to destination for clear, up-to-date and evidence-based information should be strongly promoted; in the UK, this would be the NHS Choices website.
Among the excellent materials accompanying the report are 90-second videos illustrating the main points, social media posts and beautifully designed short summary documents of major recommendations, including one that lists questions patients should ask their doctors when discussing their medicines, and an accessible 8-page summary version of the long and complex report.
A short summary like this does not do justice to the depth and significance of the issues being addressed, nor the reforms being proposed, but it is clear that implementation of the recommendations would have a radical effect on how research is conducted, how evidence is communicated, and how well patients and their health professionals are supported in making the best decisions about medicines. The presentation of the report and its accompanying materials are also fine examples of good communication practice in action.
- The Academy of Medical Sciences, “Enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicines”, 2017 (full report).
- The Academy of Medical Sciences, “How can we make better decisions about medicines?”, 2017 (report summary).