Sometimes, there is not one right answer to the problems faced in medicine (or in any other field). For example, we want drugs that have awesome efficacy. We want drugs that are extremely safe. We want drugs that are affordable. It’s not likely we’ll get all three (or even two of the three) at once.
Providing the best information about prescription medications to patients is another conundrum. As pointed out in a recent publication (Winterstein AG, Linden S, Lee AE, Fernandez EM, Kimberlin CL. Evaluation of consumer medication information dispensed in retail pharmacies. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170:1317-24), the law requires that most prescriptions be accompanied by useful written consumer medication information.
But what does “useful” mean exactly? Putting together a “useful” handout that is readable and has the basic information is certainly going to help patients, but it is also presents a risky situation for the manufacturer. Of course “useful” information includes material that is understandable and necessary to understand and correctly use the medication. But should every side effect be included? Where do you draw the line between side effects that are common and those that are too rare to include? And if you do exclude any, how would patients feel if they developed a known rare side effect that was left out of the brochure?
National Public Radio quotes Joe Graedon — a pharmacologist, host of the People’s Pharmacy and an expert on practical drug information — as saying that there are only a few key things people really need to know about their drugs:
- how to take the drug
- the most common side effects
- symptoms to watch out for and what to do if they happen
That’s sensible advice. However, there are many of lawyers out there — you’ve seen their ads on TV. With so many of them around, how will people justify excluding information for patients about even the rarest of risks, and making the brochures so long and so technical that they are no longer considered “useful?”
Note: I have been a big fan of Graedons’ Peoples Pharmacy program for years and have been a guest on the show a few times. You should check it out here. It is a terrific medical resource.