The content of this website is intended for healthcare professionals only

Medicine packaging gets plain English makeover

Familiar phrases on medicine packaging cause confusion

Mark Gould

Friday, 04 March 2011

Familiar instructions on medicine bottles and packets of pills are sometimes misleading and will be replaced with simpler words and phrases from this month.

The change follows work commissioned by the British National Formulary by researchers at the University of Leeds, which revealed that many instructions on medicine labels are easily misunderstood.

Phrases like “may cause drowsiness” and “avoid alcohol” will give way to “this medicine may make you feel sleepy” and “do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine”, respectively.

Other changes include "Do not take indigestion remedies at the same time of day as this medicine" which will become "Do not take indigestion remedies two hours before or after you take this medicine".

And "Do not stop taking this medicine except on your doctor's advice", becomes "Warning: Do not stop taking this medicine unless your doctor tells you to stop".

The researchers say the switch to clearer language will help make sure that patients take their medicines as they should. If this does not happen, the drugs are likely to be less effective and may not work at all. Patients also run the risk of getting unpleasant side effects, which in some cases may cause serious harm.

Around two million prescriptions are issued every day in the UK. By law, each bottle or packet that is dispensed by pharmacists must have a printed label that gives details on how to take the medicine. However, the Leeds research has shown that some of the standard phrases that are printed on these labels can be confusing, causing patients to behave in ways that compromises the safety and effectiveness of their treatment.

"It is vital that wordings on labels are simple and straightforward," said University of Leeds' Professor of Pharmacy Theo Raynor. "Most medicines do contain leaflets providing detailed information for patients, but these leaflets can get lost or overlooked. Patients' behaviour tends to be guided by the instructions on the outside of medicine bottles and packets of pills, so these must be as clear and unambiguous as possible."

Professor Raynor and colleagues tested a selection of instructions on a large number of volunteers from the general public aged 20 to 80 years old. They re-worded any phrases that people found confusing using best practice in clear English. They then checked that their suggested revisions were easier to understand with more members of the public.

The revised phrases have been included in the latest version of the British National Formulary, the drugs bible used by doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals.

"The software used by large pharmacy chains and independent pharmacist to print instruction labels is updated regularly, so we would expect to see these new phrases appear within the next six months," Professor Raynor said.

Registered in England and Wales. Reg No. 2530185. c/o Wilmington plc, 5th Floor, 10 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 8QS. Reg No. 30158470