Harnessing behavioural science to tackle overprescribing

By Debi Bhattacharya, Professor of Behavioural Medicine, University of Leicester / CHARMER Co-Chief Investigator

In October 2022, I delivered a talk at the Westminster Health Forum about how we can harness behavioural science to tackle overprescribing in the NHS. Here’s a summary of the key messages from the talk:

1. Overprescribing should be addressed during a hospital admission

The NHS National Overprescribing Review Report quite rightly focuses on primary care as this is where the majority of prescribing occurs. Yet 99.8% of patients and carers want doctors to initiate deprescribing discussions in hospital.

Currently half of older people are prescribed a medicine with a safety risk. The CHARMER team’s previous research found that these medicines are rarely stopped; less than 1% of hospital admission medication is proactively deprescribed. The CHARMER programme aims to develop and test a behaviour change intervention for hospital doctors and pharmacists to encourage proactive deprescribing.

2. Key stakeholders need to be involved in the development of deprescribing interventions

Existing deprescribing interventions have demonstrated marginal increases in deprescribing activity that are not sustained beyond the trial period. This can be partly attributed to how these interventions are developed and designed.

The CHARMER team’s previous research with geriatricians and pharmacists working with older adults identified what things help and what things hinder them from proactively deprescribing medicines in hospital. The team also worked with them to identify and decide on what strategies would help to address these things and support proactive deprescribing. These strategies are called ‘Behaviour Change Techniques’ and are the active ingredients that are responsible for bringing about change. In other words, the CHARMER intervention has been designed in collaboration with the people who will deliver and receive the intervention.

3. Deprescribing interventions need to be supported by behaviour change theory

While stakeholder engagement is essential for achieving behaviour change, purely focussing on what people think they need to deliver the change often fails to address all barriers and enablers. Staff commonly cite the need for extra resource as the solution. However, given extra resource such as time and workforce, staff will often increase existing activities with which they are familiar and have a known pathway of recognition rather than undertake the desired new behaviour. Another commonly delivered ‘solution’ to effect a change in practice is education and training. Whilst having the required knowledge and skills is clearly essential, behaviour change is rarely achieved by addressing only these barriers/enablers.

Asking staff what help they think they need places the onus on them to correctly identify their barriers and enablers to undertaking the desired behaviour and then select the most appropriate solutions. The field of behavioural science has offered a scientific approach to garner more meaningful input from stakeholders to shape the development of strategies (or Behaviour Change Techniques) to support implementation of a new behaviour. In CHARMER, we have worked with geriatricians and pharmacists to select and design strategies that are likely to be acceptable to everyone, affordable for NHS organisations and that will not introduce inequity.

Combining research evidence, behaviour change theory and collaborative design methods increases the likelihood that deprescribing activity resulting from the CHARMER intervention will be sustained beyond the trial period.

Developing the CHARMER trial: The experience of an NHS Research Project Manager

By Ania Spurdens, Research Project Manager, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

The CHARMER research programme aims to develop and test a behaviour change intervention for hospital doctors and pharmacists to encourage proactive deprescribing – this means stopping medicines before they cause harm.

In summer 2022, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (NNUH) took part in the CHARMER feasibility study (Work Package 3). The aim of the feasibility study was to test and then fine-tune processes for delivering the CHARMER intervention and trial. This was to ensure that hospitals across the country would be able to deliver the processes with ease in the definitive trial.

I was invited to work closely with the CHARMER team from an early stage. This was particularly useful as it meant I had access to information about the study early on, allowing plenty of time for us to plan ahead as an organisation and consider what resources would be needed. There were a few things that were different about the CHARMER feasibility study compared to studies I’d set up previously:

  1. It is rare to implement organisational changes as part of a trial – however, the clinical research team had previous experience in implementing organisational changes and we were able to follow our local processes. Senior staff in the hospital were also interested in and supportive of the study and its wider aims.

  2. Some data was collected through data linkage with routinely collected datasets from NHS Digital to minimise the burden on staff collecting data. This was something we were keen to make work. The CHARMER team, our Information Governance team, and our Senior R&D leaders worked to ensure patient data would be handled appropriately and kept secure.

  3. The Principal Investigator (PI) at the organisation was given training by the CHARMER team on how to facilitate workshops for staff taking part in the study.

  4. A benchmarking element of the intervention allowed NNUH to monitor and benchmark its progress with other hospitals taking part in the feasibility study. During set-up, we had to work out who would prepare these reports and we worked closely with specialist pharmacists to pull data from the hospital’s electronic prescribing programme.

I enjoyed setting up the CHARMER feasibility study and learned a lot along the way gaining experience and developing connections with teams across the hospital that I don’t usually work with. The CHARMER team were incredibly helpful and approachable throughout, and it was clear they wanted to support our staff and make things as easy as possible for us. There were a few things we hadn’t fully considered during set-up that came up during the active study window; however, working closely with the CHARMER team, we were able to feedback on our experience and improve the processes in preparation for the definitive trial.

Sign up to the definitive trial here.

Guest Blog: Patient and Public Involvement in Deprescribing Research

Members of the CHARMER team – Katherine Murphy (Patient and Public Involvement Lead), Doreen Pegg (Patient and Public Involvement member), David Wright (Professor of Health Services Research) and Caroline Smith (Research Associate) – have written about the importance of Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in deprescribing research for deprescribing.org.

Patient and public members have been central to CHARMER programme of research and in the blog they describe their involvement in the project. Here’s a snippet:

“My motivation is to give suggestive ideas… to improve the service in which there is a focus on remedying the way repetition of medications can be reviewed at every opportunity which will be of value to those who are not reviewed in their circumstances.”

– CHARMER PPI member

Read the full guest blog here.