It is four years to the day since the announcement that Professor Sir Alasdair Breckenridge had been appointed Chairman of the MHRA. He was meant to be a figurehead1 and to represent the public face of the Agency. But it never happened and he is not much heard of today2:

Following the 2003 National Audit Office report ("Agency performance information has not so far been designed with the public, as a stakeholder, in mind"), the MHRA commissioned a substantial review of its communications set up.

A report was commissioned from Stonehenge Public Relations Ltd, along with a survey of "key health and social campaigning groups" conducted by PatientView. Both firms had strong industry ties.3

The Stonehenge report, "A case for Change", was delivered to the MHRA in April 2004, and led to the setting up of a whole new communications department in the MHRA. In evidence to the 2004/5 Parliamentary Health Committee enquiry4, Professors Breckenridge and Woods (CEO) both emphasised this was a major initiative, and that they looked forward to impressive results.

It was the MHRA communications department who replied to our recent FOI request about the Agency’s major consultancy projects. There were two points of particular interest in their reply.

First, it is worth noting that due shortly (‘end 2006’) is a report/evaluation that the MHRA commissioned from Ipsos MORI on, Perceptions of the Public and Healthcare Professionals about Risks, Benefits, Communications and Regulations relating to Medicines and Medical Devices. It will surely make important reading, and should be promptly published, warts and all. It's a start ... [See later comment on published findings].

Secondly, the reply to this FOI request pro-actively enclosed a document we hadn’t specifically requested – this was untypical of the MHRA, therefore all the more welcome. The enclosure was a 10-page Agency paper entitled, an "MHRA Communications Strategy Summer 2005 – April 2007: an Agency-wide approach to Communications".

The current strategy enjoins all Agency staff to appreciate that "improving communications is … ‘mission critical’ for the Agency." The thrust is this:

"The MHRA's communications strategy 'in a nutshell'

Get going - build infrastructure and internal awareness
Get known - increase recognition and differentiation from other organisations
Get out there - ensuring that the information we deliver is widely available and readily accessible
Get listening - ensure that communication is genuinely two-way
Get trusted - continue to do all of this consistently, no matter how hard it may be on any given issue."

By these standards, the MHRA’s Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines (VRMM) Division still seems pretty clueless. Agent Fawbert’s most recent communication about the Seroxat/paroxetine ‘placebo suicides’ seems far off the issues, as if intoxicated with the Divisional spirit.

It is that much harder to tolerate the VRMM Division’s quality of output - while the MHRA Communication people thump on about a commitment to straight talk, plain dealing and earning trust. Improving communications is indeed ‘mission critical’ for the Agency" as a whole.


[1] "Professor Breckenridge's particular responsibilities will include representing the new agency and its decisions in public …", as well as overseeing the Board and the strategic management of the agency. (DoH press release, 28/11/2002). BACK
[2] "Your search - "alasdair breckenridge" - did not match any documents" - Google News  BACK
[3] The prime mover at Stonehenge, Geoff Potter, used to head the public relations department at GlaxoSmithKline. PatientView describes itself as "a global research and publishing organisation that works closely with health and social campaigning groups worldwide", and has many relationships with pharmaceutical companies, and public relations and advertising agencies (e.g. AstraZeneca, Burson-Marsteller, Eli Lilly, Hill & Knowlton, Johnson & Johnson, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Nefarma, Novartis, PhRMA, Roche, Sudler & Hennessey, and World Market Research Corporation.) The Stonehenge/PatientView report was "Confidential to MHRA", but is now available from the MHRA, under FOIA.   BACK
[4] See, for example, the evidence given at Q76 and Q778 in Vol 2 of the House of Commons Health Committee report (2005) on, The Influence of the Pharmaceutical Industry.  BACK

Charles Medawar
27 November 2006


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