The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 18, 2012

How effective are prescription warning labels?

When you take a prescription medication, there may be warnings on the label that caution users about possible harmful side effects. Do we read them? Apparently, many of us never even see them.

A study at Michigan State University (MSU) has concluded that making sweeping changes to the design of prescription medication bottles and their labels could make a big difference, and perhaps avoid some of the estimated four million adverse drug reaction cases in the U.S. each year.

The study found that 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." MSU researchers used eye-tracking technology and concluded that one source of the labels’ ineffectiveness is an inability to capture patients’ attention.

The study, which appears in the current issue of PLoS ONE, found that only half the participants looked directly at the warning labels. Twenty-two didn't even look at the label at all. 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 percent of the participants read, or to reposition the warnings so that they can be seen from this vantage point."

Older consumers

Bix and her colleagues say improving the design of prescription medicine bottles and labels could be of special help to older consumers. They, after all, tend to be the ones that take the most prescription medicine.

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