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Drug Labels Not Always Clear

Prescription medications always come with a label that is supposed to instruct patients on how to properly take the drug: When to take the drug…how many times per day…whether to take before or after meals, with food or on an empty stomach…and (most importantly) the proper dosage. But are the labels always clear and accurate?

The answer may surprise you.

Consumer Reports Health conducted its own test to find out how different labels and information sheets from different chain pharmacies stacked up. The team filled a prescription for 5 milligrams of the blood-thinning medication warfarin from five different pharmacies: Costco, CVS, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart.

Because warfarin can cause life-threatening bleeding if taken incorrectly, the information provided with the prescription is critically important. The Consumer Reports team found that the information provided was “confusing, misleading, buried, or absent.” According to the article:

Prescription drug bottles had an array of instructions and warnings—or alarmingly, as in the case of one store, no warnings at all. (In another visit, that same store did include warnings on the bottle. A third prescription we filled at a different store in the same chain also included warnings, but valuable label space was also used to print the lunch hours when the pharmacy was closed.)

We also found additional drug-safety information stuffed or stapled into pharmacy bags that was difficult to read due to very small type, had inconsistent information about side effects, or was written in confusing medical jargon. And four of the five pharmacies failed to follow a U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation that calls for including an FDA medication guide with many prescription drugs.

Because of these types of confusing instructions, some experts are calling for a nationwide standard. Food labels have standard Nutrition Facts labels, but prescription medications do not. This means you get more detailed, clear, and consistent information about a package of cookies than you do about a potentially dangerous drug.

According to the Consumer Reports team:

One pharmacy chain’s labels stood out from the pack. Target reinvented their bottles and labels in 2005 to help reduce patient errors. It created triangular containers that stand on their caps, leaving a large area on the front and back for drug-information labels. The drug information is in large typeface, the pharmacy details are small and at the bottom of the label, and there’s room for multiple warnings and instructions on the back of the bottles. Target has even incorporated a color-coding system for their drug containers so family members won’t accidentally reach for the wrong bottle. The ISMP has given the chain an award for its effective labels, and researchers who study patient labels have also taken notice.

“Target should be commended for their efforts to help patients read and understand medication labels,” [Dr. William] Shrank says. “I think it represents a dramatic improvement over standard labels.”

Each year, there are about 1.5 million preventable medication errors. If you take a prescription drug, always ask for clarification. If you don’t fully understand how and when to take the medication, ask your health care provider or pharmacist for details.

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