The People's Perspective on Medicine

Drug Leaflets Flunk Pharmacy Test

Have you been to a pharmacy lately? If you got a prescription filled, chances are pretty good that you had to wait a long time to get your pills.
Pharmacists are slammed with too much work and not enough help. By the time most people get their medicine, all they want to do is get out of the store.
Consulting with a harried pharmacist about instructions, potential side effects and drug interactions is low on the list, especially since people in line may eavesdrop. Besides, most pharmacies now dispense a little leaflet with each prescription that is supposed to answer such questions.
How good is the written information consumers get with their prescription medicine? Several years ago, Dr. Ruth Day told us that the quality and even the content of such print-outs can vary widely from one drugstore to another. She is a cognitive psychologist on the faculty of Duke University and also a member of the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee for the FDA.
A team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has just confirmed the variability of these pamphlets and concluded that most do not meet voluntary standards for consumer information. Only about one-fourth of the leaflets met the criteria.
The experts found that most leaflets contained information that is scientifically accurate but incomplete. Consumers judged that a third of the pamphlets are difficult to read and understand. Half of them did not have enough data about side effects to allow people to make wise decisions if they experience one.
Dr. Day studies cognitive accessibility-that is, the ease with which people can find, understand, remember and use information. According to her research, even leaflets that contain all the details on instructions, adverse reactions and interactions often present the data so that people can’t find it, understand it, remember it or use it effectively. “Therefore,” she concludes, “it is functionally absent.”
Someone who gets a prescription for Lamisil to cure a stubborn case of nail fungus may read that the drug can cause headache, digestive upset, taste disturbances, rash, itching and hives. But how many patients will realize that sometimes skin reactions can be very serious and require immediate medical attention?
Liver toxicity is another rare but potentially life-threatening complication of oral anti-fungal drugs like Lamisil or Sporanox. How does the consumer determine which symptoms signal danger?
The law states that three-fourths of all prescriptions must be accompanied by “useful information.” But if it’s in technical language and small print, jumbled together in a long paragraph, people may have trouble pulling out meaningful advice.
Ultimately, patients should get the key facts from their health care professionals in a user-friendly format. We have prepared a Drug Safety Questionnaire and Medical History form to help physicians and pharmacists communicate critical drug data. Anyone who would like this free form may send a long (no. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. QH-3, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

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    About the Author
    Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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