IOM, U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention seek to improve label literacy

ROCKVILLE, Md. —A lot of factors hinder people’s ability to fully benefit from health care, but one of them is limited health literacy, which affects nearly one-third of the U.S. population, according to the Institute of Medicine.

One problem that results is that many adults have difficulty understanding the instructions that come with their medications and information about such issues as drug interactions, but the IOM and an organization that helps determine standards for medicines in the United States have collaborated to address the issue.

An advisory panel formed by the United States Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit group that sets standards for a medication’s identity, strength, quality and purity, responded to IOM’s call for better medication instructions by developing a set of recommendations for prescription drug labels.

“Patients have the right to understand health information that is necessary to safely care for themselves and their families,” USP Health Literacy and Prescription Container Labeling Advisory Panel co-chair-woman Joanne Schwartzberg said. “Confusing medication labels is one area that can be improved considerably. As most of us who have ever received a prescription drug know, the content and appearance of medication labels can vary widely. Sometimes, there is so much information included that it can be difficult to find the most essential information: the directions for use.”

Recommendations of the panel include simplifying language, using only common terms and sentences, and eliminating medical jargon and Latin words; organizing the label in a way that reflects the way patients read labels; improving readability through the use of 12-point, sans-serif fonts, such as Arial, and using complete sentences; translating labels into patients’ preferred languages; standardizing directions; and using explicit text for dosage and interval instructions.

In addition to USP’s efforts, some companies have taken the initiative to improve health literacy as well. Tri State Distribution, based in Sparta, Tenn., recently launched TriMaxx, a line of medication containers that provide an easy-to-read labeling format, as well as a triangular shape designed to make them easier to hold and use.