Reading the fine print on prescription drug warning labels can be hard enough. But a new study suggests that many people, especially older ones, don’t notice these advisories at all. Colored warning stickers, which pharmacists often slap on pill vials in addition to the standard white pharmacy labels, highlight key safety instructions, such as “Avoid smoking while taking this drug” or “Do not drive while taking this medication.” The study findings suggest that the design and placement of these labels needs an overhaul to better prevent patients from making possibly harmful medication errors.
Notably, 17 participants over the age of 50 were much less likely to notice the warning labels than 15 participants who were ages 20 to 29. Younger adults scanned pill vials more actively, while the older ones fixed their gaze in a more stationary fashion, and often missed the warnings. These results hold particular significance because older adults often take more medications than younger ones, putting them at greater risk of making mistakes.
The research team included packaging experts and a psychologist from Michigan State University and a statistician from Kansas State University. The researchers presented study subjects with five prescription bags, each containing a single vial bearing a warning label with a unique message and color. “You have just been delivered prescription medications from the pharmacy,” they instructed patients. “Please do as you would normally do. Feel free to examine the vials as you please.”
Study subjects wore headsets with eye-tracking software that allowed researchers to record where they directed their gazes. The scientists recorded how often participants’ eyes passed over three regions of the vial: the white pharmacy label, the warning label, and the vial cap. Then the researchers presented the subjects with 10 warning labels, five which were identical to the ones they had seen, and others with different colors but the same text. The subjects were asked to recall which labels adorned the pill vials they received.
While all study subjects noticed the standard white pharmacy labels, the separate warning labels drew much less attention. Only half of the 32 subjects noticed all five warning stickers, and 22% did not notice any of the warnings at all. These results greatly differed by age: less than a third of the older adults spotted all five warnings, while nearly three-quarters of the young adults did the same. Older subjects were also less likely to recognize the warning labels after the fact, primarily because they hadn’t seen them in the first place. When older adults actually noticed the labels, they recalled them just as well as younger ones.
There are currently no federal regulations or standards that dictate how warning labels should look or what they should say. The study authors recommend redesigning labels in a way that will attract attention, especially for older adults. The color of the label doesn’t matter, their study found. However, all participants know to look at the large white pharmacy labels, so perhaps warnings should feature prominently in that space, rather than a separate location where they are overlooked.