Secret safety warnings on medicines: a case study of information access requests

Marc Torka, Barbara Mintzes*, Alice Bhasale, Alice Fabbri, Lucy Perry, Joel Lexchin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: There has been less attention to the transparency of postmarket evidence of harmful effects of medicines than of premarket clinical trial data. This is a case study of requests for Australian “direct health professional communications” (DHPCs). These letters are used by regulators and manufacturers to inform clinicians of emergent evidence of harm. DHPCs are not made public by Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

Methods: We requested all DHPCs sent out in Australia from 2007 to 2016 inclusive for 207 drugs that were subject to safety advisories over this decade in Canada, the United Kingdom, and/or the United States. We contacted 39 manufacturers (February to May 2018), with repeat requests to nonrespondents, and a follow-up freedom-of-information (FOI) request to the TGA.

Results: Fifteen companies provided information, either sending DHPCs (n = 4, on five drugs) or affirming none were sent out (n = 11). The remaining 24 of 39 (62%) companies did not provide DHPCs: nine (23%) refused the request, often citing commercial confidentiality; the rest provided no answer despite repeat requests. In total, we had no information for 170 of 207 (82%) of the drugs. Our FOI request to the TGA was unsuccessful.

Conclusions: Our experience highlights unacceptable secrecy concerning safety warnings previously sent to thousands of Australian clinicians. In the absence of explicit regulatory policy supporting disclosure, companies differed in their response. These letters warn of serious and often life-threatening harm and guide safer care; full ongoing public access is needed, ideally in searchable online databases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)551-555
Number of pages5
JournalPharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2019


  • access to information
  • drug-related side effects and adverse reactions
  • pharmacoepidemiology
  • pharmacovigilance
  • policy-making
  • risk communication


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