lighthouse“What’s the purpose of a lighthouse?”, asked the tour guide for the Start Point Lighthouse in Devon, England. He had already explained that it’s not what we all think – to stop ships from hitting the rocks off shore.

The small child lisped “it’s so the ships don’t get shipwrecked”. “Yes”, he patiently explained. “It’s so the ships can determine where they are so they are navigational aids”

I’ve just spent an idyllic week staying at a remote cottage attached to a lighthouse in the South West of England on holiday. No mobile, no wifi, no email, no social media. It’s surprising how quickly we adapt to being out of contact.

Lighthouses are often used a metaphors for pharmacovigilance or drug safety. But is that because we think lighthouses are there to prevent a disaster – the ship on the rocks situation? Or is it because the person choosing the logo knows their true purpose as navigational aids? So that we know where we are with respect to drug safety? I think we would love to have the precision of navigation in the pharmacovigilance world but is that possible? It’s how we manage uncertainty that is the challenge.

With GPS and other navigational aids is there still a place for lighthouses? Just like our operations, the network of lighthouses have been partly outsourced and mostly automated. No longer are there 3 dedicated people living on site running the equipment. It’s now monitored from a central location and someone comes in when something needs fixing (like the changing the bulbs!). There is still a place for lighthouses despite GPS. Smaller craft still use them to confirm their position, just as many companies still use people to monitor their safety profiles.

So next time, you see a lighthouse logo for a pharmacovigilance department, remember it’s not there to prevent a crisis but to help us know where we are.