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December 17, 2007

Health Literacy 101: Prescription Labels

Let's say you have just picked up a new prescription and the label says: "Take one tablet bid for 7 days."

How much and how often should you take your medicine? Studies have shown that quite a few people routinely misunderstand simple labels like this one. And it gets worse — many doctors routinely use incomprehensible abbreviations, some of them from Latin, when writing prescriptions.

One recent study estimates that 90 million Americans lack basic health literacy.

Test your knowledge of the following commonly used prescription abbreviations by matching them with the correct definition (answers below):
  1. ad lib
  2. bid
  3. i.d.
  4. MDR
  5. IM
  6. npo
  7. qd
  8. stat
  9. tid
  10. O.D.
  1. twice per day
  2. as much as you wish
  3. each day
  4. intramuscular
  5. right away
  6. minimum daily requirement
  7. three times a day
  8. the same
  9. nothing by mouth
  10. right eye
1(b), 2(a), 3(h), 4(f), 5(d), 6(i), 7(c), 8(e), 9(g), 10(j)

Dr. Alastair J.J. Wood of the American College of Physicians Foundation (ACPF) Medication Labeling Technical Advisory Board has proposed a new system of simplified, standardized dosing instructions for prescription medication container labels.

Appearing at the 2007 National Health Communication Conference, held in Washington, D.C. on November 28, Dr. Wood called for a Universal Medication Schedule (UMS) that standardizes prescription medication dosing times on drug container labels. The idea is that consumers would be told to take their medicine at the same four times per day, for example, at breakfast, lunch, dinner and bedtime. The UMS would replace the current practice which either instructs patients to take the medicine a specified number of times per day or at certain time intervals.

According to Ruth Parker, MD, FACP, co-chair of the ACPF's Medication Labeling Technical Advisory Board, "Improving drug labels is an issue that sits at the intersection of health literacy and patient safety. The variability of dosing instructions on labels is a source of confusion among patients, which could lead to adverse drug events."

Other proposals include:
  • Using clear language to describe dosage/interval instructions.
  • Simplifying language, avoiding unfamiliar words and medical jargon.
  • Displaying information in larger, simpler typefaces that can be read more easily.
  • Using boldface and highlighting for consumer content.
  • Developing a standard icon system for warnings and instructions.
By the way, that new prescription? Take it twice a day for seven days.
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