Research Study Reveals Medication Warning Labels Require Overhaul

Numerous patients appear to overlook prescription drug warning labels with directions that are vital for safe and effective use, a research study by scientists at Michigan State University and a Kansas State University researcher have found.

Patients, predominantly older ones, frequently ignore prescription advice labels partly due to the labels failing to capture their attention, noted Nora Bello, an assistant professor of statistics at Kansas State University, who worked on the investigation into the effectiveness of prescription warning labels.

Bello and specialists in packaging and psychology discovered that prescription medication labels fail to attract consumers’ attention, weakening the transfer of vital safety information.

Researchers tracked study participants’ eye movements over labels on prescription drug containers to measure attention.  The participants interacted with the vials in a hypothetical scenario of having just been provided prescription medications from the pharmacy.

Roughly 15 million medication mistakes happen annually in the United States, and a lot of these happen at home where patients are responsible for conforming to medication regimes.  Prescription warning labels are intended to be quick, easy reminders of the most important information required to ensure safe and effective use. Warnings can include, for example, cautions against taking the medicine with alcohol or driving.

The results of the research study found that older patients do not always pay attention to drug warning labels.  The results are worrying, Nora Bello noted, as the elderly population are reportedly at more risk for dangerous medication errors as a result of their frequently more complex drug regimes in comparison to younger patients.

“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 standardise the format and content of these labels to decrease medication error rates,” Bello commented.  “Results from this study can provide insight to assist debates about labelling designs that are most likely to impact a wide age range of consumers,” she added.

The results showed that the eye gaze of 50% of participants over the age of 50 did not notice a warning label on prescription vials.  22% of these participants did not visually enter the warning label area in any of the five vials they looked at.  In comparison, 90% of young people between the ages of 20 and 29 fixated on the warning labels.

The difference was partly attributed to the age-specific dynamic of visual fixation of information between the age groups, researchers commented.

The results delivered a persuasive case that understanding patients’ attentive behaviour and how to entice their attention is vital to developing an effective labelling standard for prescription drugs.


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