Drug Facts Boxes Featured in New York Times

Jul 15, 2011, 3:19 AM, Posted by Al Shar

Last week, the New York Times published an op-ed by the Dartmouth Institute’s Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz that discussed the critical need for a redesign of something that can empower consumers to make informed decisions about their health care – the information that accompanies prescription drugs. As stated in their own words: “Bombarded with pharmaceutical ads listing what seems like every conceivable side effect, American consumers might think they are already getting too much information. But they — and their doctors — are not getting what arguably matters most: independent, plain-English facts about the medication.”

Prescription medication labels are hard to read, confusing and often leave out crucial information contained in Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review documents. Major side effects or potentially dangerous drug interactions can be hidden to patients on their medication packaging. By giving drug packages a simple makeover and creating a standardized, easy-to-read drug fact box—akin to what’s currently required for nutrition labels—information that is critical to enabling an individual to make the best health care decisions possible will be readily available to all.

Woloshin and Schwartz are leading the charge on the effort to develop these “Prescription Drug Facts Boxes.” Recognizing the opportunity for a simple design change to create better access to information and have a big impact on how people engage with their health care, we have been supporting their efforts since 2008. You can read more about that support here. This idea was simple and powerful enough to be included in the health care reform law.

Policymakers say that an additional three years of study are needed before beginning to implement the facts box. To me, it’s unclear what more they will learn in those three years. I don’t think it’s the lack of an evidence base. Woloshin and Schwartz have done a number of good studies about the efficacy and adding to them should not take three years. I don’t think it’s figuring out how to operationalize the production, a hand book is easily developable. I do think it’s a combination of two important factors: an underrepresented constituency and an overly strong concern for the potential adverse impact of any change.

The underrepresented constituency is the consumer. We are already given information about the intent of the drug and the dangers. The perception is then that the only thing the drug box adds is the ability to make a more informed choice. And that’s not seen as very important. Given that, it’s easy to see why the potential downside of the change needs so much study. If you don’t weight the value very highly, you need to be very sure that there are no “adverse events”.

That’s wrong. We’re being told (and in some cases, compelled) to take more individual responsibility for our health. Being denied access to clear and actionable information is wrong.