Pharmaceutical risk communication: sources of uncertainty and legal tools of uncertainty management

Health Risk and Society 12 (5):453-69 (2010)
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Risk communication has been generally categorized as a warning act, which is performed in order to prevent or minimize risk. On the other side, risk analysis has also underscored the role played by information in reducing uncertainty about risk. In both approaches the safety aspects related to the protection of the right to health are on focus. However, it seems that there are cases where a risk cannot possibly be avoided or uncertainty reduced, this is for instance valid for the declaration of side effects associated with pharmaceutical products or when a decision about drug approval or retirement must be delivered on the available evidence. In these cases, risk communication seems to accomplish other tasks than preventing risk or reducing uncertainty. The present paper analyzes the legal instruments which have been developed in order to control and manage the risks related to drugs – such as the notion of “development risk” or “residual risk” – and relates them to different kinds of uncertainty. These are conceptualized as epistemic, ecological, metric, ethical, and stochastic, depending on their nature. By referring to this taxonomy, different functions of pharmaceutical risk communication are identified and connected with the legal tools of uncertainty management. The purpose is to distinguish the different functions of risk communication and make explicit their different legal nature and implications.

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