Prescriptive Measures

Virginia Hughes investigates the purpose of drug warning labels:

Does anyone actually read them?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of research on that question, though the data that does exist suggests that some patients are more conscientious than I am. One report I stumbled on, surveying 1,500 patients from a community pharmacy in Germany in 2001, found that 80 percent always read the inserts. A 2007 study looked at 200 patients in Israel who were prescribed antibiotics, analgesics or antihypertensives. It found that just over half of participants read the inserts. And a 2009 study in Denmark found that 79 percent of patients “always or often” read them. On the other hand, a 2006 report of American consumers reported that just 23 percent looked at this info.

Even if patients are interested in reading those materials, they might not understand the information.

A 2011 study asked 52 adults with a high-school education or less to read the package insert and similar materials describing an antidepressant medication. Afterwards, less than 20 percent could name the the rare-but-dangerous side effect of the drug. A report from the Institute of Medicine similarly concluded that drug labeling is a big part of why patients often use drugs incorrectly.

Studies like those have led some researchers to propose ways to make labels more useful to patients. But the reason Pfizer was so concerned with the black box warning for Chantix has little to do with consumer behavior. The company was worried because of the warning’s potential influence on doctors and their prescribing habits.