What Do You See on Your Med Labels?

Age may affect your eyesight which may affect drug safety

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Prescription warning labels are those little, colored labels that are on a prescription pill bottles. Do you always see them?

The labels carry warnings about correct drug usage – like “Do not consume alcohol while taking this medication" or “For external use only."

A recent study found that older people are more likely to miss the warning labels than younger people, and this may contribute to medication errors.

"Talk to a pharmacist about the labels on your prescriptions."

Raghav Prashant Sundar, a graduate student, with Laura Bix, PhD, of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, used eye-tracking to understand how people are viewing the labels on prescription bottles.

Eye-tracking research uses computers to track the movements of the eye. This method enabled the researchers to see how people’s eyes moved around a prescription bottle and what areas and labels were the object of their focus.

The researchers looked at the eye movements of people as they looked at prescription bottles with a variety of labels including the standard, white pharmacy label (that contains the name), various warning labels (the smaller colored labels), and labels containing pharmacy information on the lid.

There were 15 young people between 20 and 29 years old, and 17 older people between 51 and 77 years old in the study. 

In both age groups, people looked more at the pharmacy label and looked less at the warning labels and lid labels.

Younger people used twice as many eye shifts, on average, to look around the bottle compared to the older age group.  Older people were about 40 percent less likely than young people to focus their eyes directly on the warning label.

When asked if they recognized warning labels they had seen, the older people were able to recognize about 15 percent fewer labels than young people.

However, they found that memory for a label was directly related to whether or not a person fixed their gaze on the label during the first part of the study.

The authors conclude that older people may attend to labels differently than younger people, and this may explain, in part, why medication errors are more likely for older people.

The authors said in their recent report, “This is important because older adults are recognized to be at greater risk for [adverse events]. These data provide a compelling case that understanding consumers’ attentive behavior is crucial to developing an effective labeling standard for prescription drugs.”

Currently, there are no universal or legal standards for how labels are presented on prescription drug packages.

This study report was published in June in PLoS ONE. The study was funded by the Center for Food and Pharmaceutical Packaging Research.

Laura Bix, , a coauthor on the study, reported affiliations with Abbot and Pfizer.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 27, 2012
Last Updated:
December 4, 2012