Changes needed for oft-ignored prescription labels, says AgBioResearch scientist

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Each year, an estimated 4 million Americans experience adverse reactions to prescription medications. Many of these reactions, ranging from mild rashes and drowsiness to hospitalization and death, could be avoided if warning labels were more effective, according to a study by Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Laura Bix.

When patients are handed a new prescription, few read the critical warning labels such as “do not consume alcohol while taking this medication” or “for external use only.” Using eye-tracking technology, MSU researchers found that one source of the labels’ ineffectiveness is an inability to capture patients’ attention.

The study, which appears in a recent issue of PLoS ONE, reveals that only 50 percent of participants looked directly at the warning labels, and 22 percent did not look at any labeling.  Bix, MSU associate professor of packaging, suggests that relatively simple changes could improve the labels’ effectiveness.

“Given our results, we are recommending a complete overhaul of the design and labeling of the ubiquitous amber bottles, which have seen little change since their introduction some 50 years ago,” Bix said. “Our initial recommendations are 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 that they can be seen from this vantage point.”

The impact of this study could be especially beneficial to older patients. On average, more than 30 percent of those 65 and older take 10 medications daily. Taking multiple medications increases the odds of adverse reactions. This combination is complicated further by the fact that older participants were less likely to notice or remember warning labels. The study suggests that making labels more noticeable could be a key factor in helping people remember the warnings.

The results highlight the importance of how labels influence the attention process, said Mark Becker, MSU assistant professor of psychology.

“By applying basic research on the control of attention to the design of labels, we may greatly improve their effectiveness,” he said. “This collaboration between the School of Packaging and the Department of Psychology makes such efforts possible.”

Bix and other MSU researchers plan to continue testing the effectiveness of new and current prescription packaging and reviewing prescription drug leaflets currently under regulatory debate.

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