study urges rethinking of prescription drug warning labels

According to a recently published study in the science journal PLoS One, there are nearly 15 million medication errors in the United States each year and the majority of these errors involve patients failing to properly manage their medication regimens while at home.

While this is certainly a shocking finding on its own, the study also determined that the warning labels affixed to the sides of prescription bottles or boxes are being ignored by a large portion of the U.S. population.

This is significant because these stickers are designed to prevent serious and even fatal prescription injuries. Specifically, they convey vital messages to patients on such topics as safe use, dosage and drug interactions.

The study, performed by researchers with Michigan State University and Kansas State University, used computer technology to measure the eye movements of a random pool of young and old people who were given a sample prescription to read.

They found that 90 percent of all people between the ages of 20 and 29 noticed/read the warning labels, while only 50 percent of people over the age of 50 bothered to read/notice the warning labels. However, the majority of patients did devote some amount of time to reading the standard white pharmacy label.

This finding regarding warning labels is alarming given that so many older Americans already take multiple medications and are frequently prescribed new ones to treat the onset of a new ailment.

What then can be done to combat this important patient safety issue?

The researchers are calling for a complete overhaul of the current system of warning labels, perhaps incorporating all of the pertinent safety information directly onto the standard white pharmacy label.

“These findings have implications for the design of prescription drug warning labels to improve their effectiveness, particularly as the U.S. government recently started to investigate approaches to standardize the format and content of these labels to decrease medication error rates,” said Nora Bello, one of the primary authors of the study. “Results from this study can provide insight to assist debates about labeling designs that are most likely to impact a wide age range of consumers.”

Sources: Counsel & Heal, “Prescription drug warning labels need to better capture attention,” July 5, 2012; The Record, “Study: Older adults overlook warning labels on medication bottles,” Colleen Diskin, July 5, 2012

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