June 27, 2012

Here's How to Increase Number of
Patients Reading Drug Warning Labels

East Lansing, MIPatients with adverse drug reactions make an estimated 4.5 million visits each year to primary care physicians or emergency departments. How many of those reactions, ranging from mild rashes and drowsiness to hospitalization and death, could be avoided if warning labels were more effective?

That's what Michigan State University (MSU) researchers sought to find out. Their study, appearing in a recent issue of PLoS ONE, found that only 50% of participants looked directly at all warning labels, such as "for external use only" or "do not consume alcohol while taking this medication," and 22% did not look at any.

Using eye-tracking technology, researchers discovered that the labels often failed to capture patients' attention because of design. Laura Bix, associate professor in MSU's School 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 would be to move all of the warnings from the colored stickers to the main, white label, which 100% of the participants read, or to reposition the warnings so that they can be seen from this vantage point."

The issue is especially important for older patients, according to study authors, because they tend to take more drugs yet pay less attention to the warning labels.

"Specifically, we found that only 29% of our older participants attended to all [of the prescription warning labels (PWLs) used in the study], and another 29% failed to fixate on any of the PWLs. For younger viewers these numbers were 73% and 13%, respectively. This dramatic difference in attention between the older and younger participants was accompanied by a lower PWL recognition rate in our older participants," they write.

Interestingly, the color of the labels didn't affect awareness. The researchers found instead that making the warning labels separate and "spatially distinct from the white pharmacy label may actually hinder the label's ability to garner attention...if the top-down attentional system is guiding attention toward the white pharmacy label, placing warning in that zone may prove to be more effective."

U.S. Pharmacist Social Connect