A new study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has questioned the design on medicine bottles that use the image of olives to represent pregnant women, saying it could lead to misinterpretation of medications.
The researchers claimed that replacing confusing language and icons on standard warnings labels for prescription medicine and listing only the most important warnings could make a big difference in how well patients understand the instructions that are critical to their health.
Simple, concise language on warning labels of prescription medicine bottles is easier for patients to understand than the standard wording commonly used, according to the study.
And the fewer warnings on a label, the more likely a patient will actually pay attention to them.
For the study, researchers worked with patients and nationally renowned graphic designers to simplify and redesign the confusing language and icons of standard warning labels.
Many of them have been used for decades without any evidence to show patients comprehend them, or even if they are true.
"The study shows the value of a clear message. A lot of the current warnings were phrased very abstractly and were confusing. For example, we changed 'For external use only' to 'Use only on your skin.' We moved from the intangible to the concise," said Michael Wolf, lead author of the study.
Many of these label warnings are critical for patients to take their medications safely.
In previous study, the researchers found that over half of adults misunderstand common standard drug warnings, putting them at risk for using the medicine incorrectly or even having a life-threatening event.
The new findings have encouraged the researchers to work with the U.S. Pharmacopeia on a drug labelling task force to help overhaul the content and use of these labels.
The study also found that newly designed icons improved understanding for patients with low health literacy, a group at greatest risk for misinterpreting instructions and misusing medications.
The graphic designers worked with the researchers and patients to capture their mental images of what each message means.
"A current and widely used icon of a pregnant woman resembles an olive. For most people that probably doesn't convey pregnancy. The new design of a silhouette of a pregnant woman with a bump on her stomach was more easily recognizable to patients," said Wolf.
Wolf suggested a limit of two warnings on the bottle, because the study found that patients don't pay attention if there are too many of them.
The warnings should include the most important few, and these should have evidence confirming their necessity.
"We need to figure out which are the most important warnings and only put those on the label. Otherwise you risk the message never reaching the patient. The more warnings you put on a label, the more you distract them from essential instructions and precautions that ensure they safely use the medicine," said Wolf.
"Our findings underscore the importance of including patients in the process and using meaningful, plain language to support their understanding and proper use of their medicine," added Wolf.
The study was published in a recent issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.