Improve Prescription Drug Labels and Instructions, Get Fewer Adverse Reactions

Prescription drug labelsWhat if prescription drug labels and warnings – you know, the ones that clutter the outside of prescription drug containers – were worded and displayed like advertising?

Meaning that instead of sounding like computerese and slapped at random onto the container, they were actually designed to get your attention and comprehension.

Consider this: Every year an estimated 4 million Americans suffer adverse reactions to prescription medications. The reactions range from stomach upset, rashes and drowsiness to violent illness, hospitalization and death.

According to a new study from researchers at Michigan State University (East Lansing, USA), only 50% of patients actually read the warning labels, with 22% that didn’t even bother to look at them. This is the reason sites like exist to reduce harm.

Even fewer read the detailed instructions that are often printed on prescription drug labels or even over-the-counter drugs. While there are no statistics on how this contributes to people improperly taking medication, it is not much of an intuitive leap to believe it has some effect.

This is particularly true for older patients. In the United States more than 30% of people 65 and over take, on average, 10 different medications a day. That, as they say, is a recipe for adverse drug interaction if the instructions for medication are not scrupulously followed.Prescription drug labels

Current practice with prescription drug labels and drug instruction literature is often so chaotic – both visually and verbally – that older people either ignore or are confused by the information.

The Michigan State study, developed by the School of Packaging, suggests that improvement in labeling and instruction need not be difficult. As Laura Bix, the lead author of the study said, “Our initial recommendations would be to move all of the warnings from the colored stickers to the main, white label, which 100 percent of the participants read, or to reposition the warnings so they can be seen from this vantage point.”

What the study is essentially recommending is that warning labels and other drug instructions be treated like advertisement, with as much effort given to layout, attention-getting and clarity of message as is lavished on, say, a package for an over-the-counter pain reliever.

This sounds like a simple solution, and it could be. However, pharmaceutical firms have a great interest in persuading doctors and patients to use their products. That’s what advertising budgets are for.

How that product is delivered, typically by a third party known as a pharmacy, is of less concern. In short, who would bear the cost of redesigning the drug containers and their labels? Who would set the standards, if there should be any?

The content of drug warnings and medication instructions is a matter of regulatory debate, primarily involving the Food and Drug Administration.  What is often missing is the discussion of how this information should be presented so that people actually see and understand it.

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