Picture this. You are given just a few days notice. You fly to Sydney for yet another Consumer Medicine Information (CMI) meeting. You meet with 30 other delegates in a hotel function room, furnished with circular tables. A card with your name on it tells you where you have to sit. No microphones are provided. At least half the delegates have to move their chairs or their necks to see who is speaking, and all struggle to hear what anyone says. Many have no prior knowledge of CMI or its history. The information available to delegates before the meeting was meagre. No new information is given at the meeting. You are shown two CMI documents as ‘templates’.  One is obviously awful, the other a poor attempt to ‘improve’ a current public document—it is slightly less awful than the first. You are asked to choose between them. You fly home.

This is not a script for a political or office satire. It is my summary of the CMI workshop I attended last week, at the invitation of the Australian Government Department of Health. It is what happens when desperate government ministers, in the lead-up to a general election, need to look as if they are doing something useful for the electorate.

On the flight home, I looked at the emails that downloaded onto my laptop. In amongst them was an email from one of the delegates who that morning had sent me a copy of the research report that led to the chosen template.

I have just read the report. It scrupulously follows the 1994 methods for testing CMI.1Sless, David, and Rob Wiseman. Writing About Medicines for People: Usability Guidelines and Glossary for Consumer Product Information. Canberra: Department of Health and Human Services, 1994. I’m pleased to say that, after three rounds of testing and modification, the CMI performed at the acceptable 1994 standard. 21. at least 90% of literate consumers are able to find information on the CMI quickly and easily
2. at least 90% of those who find the information are able to act appropriately on the information
3. at least 81% of literate consumers are able to use the CMI appropriately.
  I should be flattered, but I’m not. This is profoundly disappointing. After 25 years we are not even back to where we started: a document that is just about usable but still unlikely to be handed out by pharmacists nor used by medicine users when they get home. Various important features of the original CMI have been removed to cope with the project designers’ lack of information design skills and the crippling limitations of the technology. Reading the report carefully shows that the many ways in which we have lifted the standard of designing and testing public documents in the last 25 years are still not incorporated into CMI.

Because the Minister is in a hurry, the next round of testing will be at the end of this month, no time to learn about the last 25 years of accumulated know-how. We are moving backwards fast, to make a token gesture.

There is a profound lesson to be learnt from this. Those of us with a long time commitment and interest in this area need to work together, with or without government support, and preferably without their token interference. Don’t forget that Government Ministers have shorter lives than most serious research and development projects. To that end, I’m prepared to offer CRI as a locus for that work now and into the future.

For the last 33 years CRI has been at the center  of international research and practical interest in the design of public documents. It is the intention of our Board of Governors to ensure that CRI is here for at least the next 33 years. It is within that milieu that CMI needs to shine and help people use medicines safely and effectively. If this interests you, contact us and collaborate with us.