Medical writing: explain ‘unlicensed’

An unlicensed medicine can be difficult to explain to your reader. The word itself, unlicensed, might make them lose confidence in what you’re about to tell them.

So here is how I would approach it.

When we say something is unlicensed, it means it doesn’t have an official stamp of approval to use it to treat a particular condition.

This stamp of approval, or license, is how a medicine goes from being discovered in a lab and then offered for safe use in humans. The ‘license’ part is the permission to use it for a specific health condition.

But what if you want to use a medicine that is not licensed for treating a certain health condition?

This is how you end up with unlicensed medicines.

Think of it this way – it takes a long time to get a medicine onto the market. Even getting an existing medicine licensed to treat a different condition can take years.

But your patient needs help now – what do you do?

So as a doctor, you look into what specialists are prescribing and what they’ve found out. You might also read a recent study or two about the medicine you want to prescribe.

There are no trials or clinical data to help you figure out what the right dose is. Only what other people have tried and tested.

For example, using amitriptyline for pain is unlicensed, as it’s licensed as a treatment for anxiety or depression. But for some patients, amitriptyline helps relieve pain and doctors will prescribe it ‘off-license’ for them.

I tend to avoid using the word unlicensed or anything like it. I say ‘only a doctor can prescribe this for you to use for this condition and they may need to see you more often to check that it’s working for you’.

Simple as that. No worrying, fears or doubts about it.

Published by Virginia Chachati

I am a UK GPhC registered Pharmacist from London. I love to write easy to understand health and wellness content. My goal is to help empower people to better their own health.

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