Maribeth Buie: Prescribing Change for Prescription Container Labeling

Prescription container labeling has long been an enormous obstacle in improving health literacy, as readers often struggle with ease of understanding, terminology, directions, and formatting issues.  However, for the first time ever, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention is publishing new standards for prescription container labeling.  The new standards will provide a universal approach to the format, appearance, content, and language of instructions inherent in such labeling.

The approach outlines how to organize prescription container labels in a patient-friendly way, to use clear language to describe dosages and intervals, and to improve readability with clear formatting [including “purpose for use” (e.g. – “for high blood pressure”) and addressing the visually impaired and those with limited English comprehension].  For example, to improve readability, the standards state that label formatting should use high contrast, lots of white space, and simple large fonts.  To provide explicit instructions, the standards specify that the phrase, “Take 2 tablets twice daily,” should state, “Take 2 tablets in the morning and 2 tablets in the evening.”  These examples are a small sampling of the patient-centered changes these new standards prescribe for prescription container labeling.

As 77 million Americans have limited health literacy, these standards are definitely a step in the right direction to help individuals understand their medications, to adhere to medication regimens, and to use their medications safely.  Look for improved labeling at pharmacies nationwide in the near future.

Maribeth Buie: How Your Local Pharmacy Can Help

Every day, unintentional poisonings account for nearly 87 deaths and over 2,200 emergency room visits in the United States.  A large proportion of unintentional poisonings may be attributed to low health literacy.  This is such an important topic that an entire chapter in the Staying Healthy curriculum is devoted to ‘Medicines,’ including the difference between over-the-counter and prescription drugs, reading a prescription label, measuring medicines, side effects/warning labels, etc.

Prescription labels and drug information can be confusing for native English speakers at any education level.  Difficulties arise with small print, ambiguous wording, unfamiliar drug names, and inconsistent formats.  Logic follows that it will be even harder for adult learners.  As they make gains in their health literacy, the local pharmacy can help!

Some pharmacies offer prescription labels and drug information in languages other than English, all your students have to do is request it!

I took an informal poll of four major pharmacies in Florida – Walgreens, CVS, Publix, and WalMart.  Walgreens offers the most in terms of language translation.  They offer prescription labels/drug information in thirteen languages (other than English):  Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portugese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.  Walgreens registers all pharmacists able to speak multiple languages to provide translation services.  So, for example, if a Japanese-speaking customer arrives at the pharmacy, the Walgreens computer system can locate and call a pharmacist that speaks Japanese to provide information or answer questions (if one is on staff anywhere in the United States).  In addition, Walgreens offers large-print labels in English or Spanish upon request.

Other pharmacies also offer translation services.  CVS offers prescription label/drug information in Spanish and French, and Publix offers prescription label/drug information in Spanish.  WalMart does not offer any type of reliable translation service.

It is important to teach your students that a pharmacist is a great resource.  Pharmacists not only help with understanding prescription medicines, but they can also help with understanding over-the-counter medicines – especially which medicine is right for an individual’s particular symptoms.  Another great idea, invite your local pharmacist to speak to your class. Most pharmacies value and encourage community involvement and education.

The ultimate goal is to help adult learners improve their health literacy, including understanding labels and information in English.  However, on the way toward accomplishing that goal, the local pharmacy can be a literal life saver.