Before Following Pill Bottle Warnings, I Want to Know Why
To use a common example, a new medicine, whether over-the-counter or prescription, that instructs “do not take with alcohol.” I want to know – is it because I might feel stronger effects of the alcohol and need to moderate my drinking? To me, that’s a different issue than, “3 out of 10 patients will have irreversible, severe liver damage.” I might just assume the first, less bad consequence is the real one, and only follow the “do not” instruction until I feel that I know how the combination of the medicine and alcohol affects me. If I knew that a more serious consequence was a reality, I might take the directive more seriously.
I need details. I want to know, “What’s excessive sunlight? How much water is plenty? By ‘take with food,’ do you mean a snack, or a meal? What are the consequences if I ignore this, and how serious are they?”
What if the medicine is short-term (like a week of antibiotics) vs. longer-term (like an antidepressant or birth control)? Sure, you might follow a “do not” instruction for a week, but for months or years? I personally can’t tolerate simply following an instruction without context – it’s a characteristic that has gotten me into more than a little trouble over the years. 😉
Yes, I know – drug labels are already confusing, and adding more information to them as they are designed right now maybe wouldn’t help matters. Perhaps something clear on the insert – the little brochure that comes with your medicine – would be a good alternative. In general, I’m all for redesigning drug labels, packaging, and instructions (especially when more than one medicine is needed) so they are more useful and less confusing. There are some serious issues around language, literacy, and design that might make adding more information problematic, but it’s a worthwhile challenge if it results in people actually having a better understanding of instructions and their relative importance.
And, yes, that’s what pharmacists are for, and perhaps people should ask them these questions more often. So often, though, you have to make a special request to actually talk to a pharmacist, and the question – “Hey, can I ignore this and have a margarita at happy hour?” – might not be one that most people are comfortable asking. It’s also rare to have real privacy when speaking to a pharmacist – those little plastic nowhere-near-a-walls don’t quite do it for me.
The bottom line is that I’m inclined to ignore any instruction that doesn’t come with an explicit rationale and some indicator of how seriously I should take it, and drug labels are one important place where that’s a problem. Anybody else similarly inclined? What would you like to know about the various warnings that come on OTC and prescription drugs?