Changes In Prescription Labels Could Cut Down On Confusion, Save Lives

Apr 7, 2014

Medical practitioners came together with educators and community leaders last week to discuss ways to communicate more effectively with patients. The 7th Annual Community Service Learning Conference at the UT Health Science Center offered new tools practitioners can use on a daily basis.

An evolving global health care environment has challenged doctors, nurses and pharmacists to work differently to make sure patients understand even the most basic instructions.

Dr. Oralia Bazaldua, who teaches pharmacy students at the UT Health Science Center, said the health literacy conversation began in the early 1990s, and is gaining traction, if only slowly.

"A few years ago this would be a fairly new topic to nursing students, now it's being, at least, addressed," Bazaldua said.

Bazaldua said misunderstood instructions can have life-changing effects. She said patients often make mistakes in taking medications because drug labels are confusing.

Old labels prominently feature the pharmacy name instead of patient instructions.
Credit Dr. Sunil Kripalani

"There are some people that are actually advocating for changing the label on the prescriptions because what you see now, the most prominent information is the pharmacy name," Bazaldua said.

Bazaldua said 70 percent of patients in a study were incorrect when they tried to demonstrate what they thought the instructions meant by: “Take two tablets twice daily.”

She said doctors are challenged to more fully explain prescriptions to their patients. She also said new recommendations call for prominently displayed instructions on the bottle, along with pictographs that don’t depend on language skills.

"Pictures that would include the indication of the medication and pictures that would include when to take the medication: For example, if it's taken in the evening, a picture of the stars and the moon would show up, if it's taken in the morning maybe a halfway sun," Bazaldua said.

About 400 health practitioners attended the conference to learn new tools they can use to better communicate with patients and the community. Other health professionals spoke on topics ranging from reducing child abuse in South Texas to building healthy lifestyles through community gardens.