'We don't live in a harm reduction world, we live in a prohibition world': tensions arising in the design of drug alerts

Isabelle Volpe, Rita Brien, Jasmin Grigg, Stephanie Tzanetis, Sione Crawford, Tom Lyons, Nicole Lee, Ginny McKinnon, Caitlin Hughes, Alan Eade, Monica J. Barratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
41 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Drug alerts designed for health and community workforces have potential to avert acute harms associated with unpredictable illicit drug markets, by preparing workers to respond to unusual drug-related events, and distribute information to service users. However, the design of such alerts is complicated by diverse needs of individuals, and broader socio-political contexts. Here, we discuss the tensions that arose in the process of co-designing drug alert templates with health and community workers. 

Methods: We conducted five in-depth digital co-design workshops with 31 workers employed in alcohol and other drug and urgent care settings. Our approach to analysis was informed by Iterative Categorisation and reflexive thematic analysis methods. 

Results: We identified five key tensions. First, there is a need to provide comprehensive information to meet the information needs of a diverse group of workers with varying knowledge levels, while also designing alerts to be clear, concise, and relevant to the work of individuals. Second, it is important that alerts do not create 'information overload'; however, it is also important that information should be available to those who want it. Third, alert design and dissemination must be perceived to be credible, to avoid 'alert scepticism'; however, credibility is challenging to develop in a broader context of criminalisation, stigmatisation, and sensationalism. Fourth, alerts must be carefully designed to achieve 'intended effects' and avoid unintended effects, while acknowledging that it is impossible to control all potential effects. Finally, while alerts may be intended for an audience of health and community workers, people who use drugs are the end-users and must be kept front of mind in the design process. 

Conclusions: The co-design process revealed complexities in designing drug alerts, particularly in the context of stigmatised illicit drug use, workforce diversity, and dissemination strategies. This study has highlighted the value of developing these important risk communication tools with their target audiences to ensure that they are relevant, useful, and impactful. The findings have informed the development of our drug alert prototypes and provide local context to complement existing best-practice risk-communications literature.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3
Number of pages18
JournalHarm Reduction Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jan 2023


  • Co-design
  • Credibility
  • Drug alerts
  • Drug checking
  • Drug risk communication
  • Early warning system
  • Harm reduction
  • Stigma
  • Tensions
  • Workforce


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