New guidance for drug checking services in health risk communication

Health risk communication strategies for drug checking services in Europe is the focus of a new EMCDDA manual out today. The resource provides staff working in these services with practical guidance on communicating drug-related risks at both an individual and community level.

Drug checking services are available in 11 EU Member States, as well as in Switzerland, the UK and other parts of the world. They provide potentially life-saving information on the content of drug samples submitted to them by people who use drugs, based on chemical analysis. They may also offer advice, counselling or brief interventions, including referral to other support services.

Health risk communication refers to the exchange of information, opinions and recommended actions between individuals, groups and institutions about the nature, magnitude, significance or control of threats to health and well-being.

All drug checking services carry out some form of health risk communication activity in their work, often via drug safety alerts or the sharing of data with stakeholders. One of the main challenges they face is deciding on how best to communicate the results of their analyses with their service users or the wider public and to avoid unintended results (e.g. target audience seeks out potent drug).

The manual underlines the need for approaches that are 'grounded in the best evidence available or principles of effective and safe health risk communication'. To date, there has been relatively little evaluation of how communications and alerts of drug checking services are developed and delivered.

In response, the manual presents 10 key communication principles developed in consultation with European drug checking services from the Trans-European Drug Information project network (TEDI).

These provide guidance on how drug checking services can ensure that their safety alerts and public communications effectively reach target audiences and increase the likelihood of recommended actions being adopted.

The manual is based on the findings of international evidence reviews of health risk communication, communication guidelines published by international organisations, and specific initiatives undertaken with people who use drugs and the services that support them. It includes:

  • theory, scientific evidence and principles of health risk communication in the public health field and its relevance for drug checking services (e.g. message development, audience segmentation);
  • guidance in public communication (e.g. 10 key principles);
  • suggestions and resources to support drug checking services in incorporating data collection, monitoring and evaluation in their communication strategies.

The role of drug checking services within a wider public health response to drug-related harms has become increasingly relevant in recent times due to increasingly potent and diverse substances on the market. This report explores how services can ensure that their activities are both evidence-based and evidence-generating, helping to build consensus and standards in health risk communication on drugs in the future.