In what may be seen as further evidence that Britain is “dumbing down”, a health watchdog is calling for the labels on drugs and other medicines to be simplified to make them easier to understand.
The British National Formulary (BNF), which is the main source of information on medicines used by doctors, nurses and other health professionals, is recommending that labels be improved to make sure that they are clear and easy to understand by patients.
Medicines sold in the UK must be accompanied by a Patient Information Leaflet which provides detailed information about the product, its usage and side effects. But as Professor Theo Raynor of the University of Leeds points out, this is not the whole story.
“The leaflet may get lost which means that the label on the medicine plays a very important part in guiding people’s behaviour. It is vital therefore that wordings on labels are simple and straightforward” he said.
Professor Raynor carried out extensive user research into this issue, and concludes that the labels on medicines are vital sources of information and therefore need to be clear and easy to understand.
For instance many drug labels say that the medicine “may cause drowsiness” – but this may not always be understood. Changing the label to say “this medicine may make you sleepy” is much clearer for most people to understand.
As well as using simpler words, the BNF report also points out that some common phrases are ambiguous, for instance “avoid alcoholic drink” is not as clear a statement as “do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine”.
Professor Nick Barber, Professor of Pharmacy at London University, denies that these proposed changes are “dumbing down” – rather they are an attempt to prevent harm to patients. “When serious errors occur which cause harm to patients, it is often as a result of a series of minor failures at various stages. Therefore in taking more care about the wording of detailed instructions we can help improve the safety of medicines” he explained.
And this is not a small problem – “with two million prescriptions being issued every day, a small percentage improvement through labels being more understandable could make a significant impact” he added.