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Building a Better Prescription Bottle

With tiny type and unclear directions, many drug labels provide a dose of confusion

spinner image A woman reading the label on a prescription pill bottle
Better pill bottle labels are coming to help prevent people from taking drugs incorrectly.
Tetra Images/Getty Images

Ever find the instructions on your prescription bottle baffling? You’re not alone. Nearly half of people taking medication say they’ve been confused by a label. In Wisconsin, for example, a survey showed that almost 23 percent said the problem caused them to take drugs incorrectly, says Steve Sparks, director of the nonprofit Wisconsin Health Literacy.

The reasons: vague instructions (“Take as directed”), tiny print and the difficulties of coordinating dosages of multiple medications. Sparks says, “You would not believe how many people say, ‘I take five medications, each one of them has a different schedule, and I can’t keep track of them — so I just take them all in the morning.’ ”

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But efforts are underway to make prescription labels simpler and schedules easier to manage. Wisconsin Health Literacy has worked with patients to design new labels, which are being rolled out in many pharmacies across that state. The most important information is at the top in a large, bold typeface, including the names of the patient and the drug. 

Sparks calls the labels “a critical line of defense against medication errors and adverse drug effects.”

CVS is in the process of introducing its new ScriptPath prescription labels, which the company hopes will be available in all of its more than 9,700 pharmacies nationwide by midsummer. “Our objective is to make it clear when and how customers should take their medications,” says Kevin Hourican, president of CVS Pharmacy, the company’s retail business.

The Department of Veterans Affairs introduced simpler standardized medication labels in 2013, with clear directions at the top and the name of the drug in bold and highlighted in yellow. The VA used veterans’ input to make them “easy to read, intuitive and safer,” says Douglas Paull, M.D., acting chief officer of the VA’s National Center for Patient Safety. 

The changes both in Wisconsin and at the VA are in keeping with the latest patient-friendly recommendations from the nonprofit advisory group U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), which sets recommendations for prescription labeling. Each state has its own specific requirements, which focus mostly on what the labels must state but not on the clarity of that content. 

Many pharmacies offer services to ease the hassles of taking medication.

Language assistance

Federal law requires pharmacies to make reasonable efforts to provide translation services for prescription instructions, but they’re often very limited. California is one of a handful of states with firmer regulations, requiring pharmacies to offer instructions in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean or Russian on request.

Magnified text

At Walgreens, customers can request prescription instructions that are in large print and easier to read. Rite Aid offers “large-font-format” labels.

Talking labels

Walgreens pharmacists will record audio instructions for people with vision impairment. An audio device is attached to the medication bottle. 

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