Patient Medication Information: Keep It Simple, Stakeholders

Erica has a history of cardiac issues. She visits her doctor for a regular checkup and her doctor writes a new prescription to better control her heart disease.
Unfortunately, her doctor didn’t mention any instructions, except to take it once a day. Erica thanks her doctor and heads to the pharmacy. At the check-out counter, the clerk hands Erica her new prescription drug, in addition to three document
s stapled to the bag that he says “will explain everything you need to know about your medication.” Later on, while reviewing the materials at home, Erica is overwhelmed by the information, which is in fine print and difficult to understand. She is frustrated and confused, and tosses the documents in the trash.

This scenario is not uncommon. Research suggests that about 50 percent of Americans find it difficult to read health information.[i] Consumers who cannot find the information they need, or who do not understand the information because it is presented in a convoluted manner, are less likely to use it to prevent unnecessary medical errors. In Erica’s case, she could have ended up in the emergency room because she missed some basic warnings about her prescription. For example, one warning might have been that she should not chew the medication because it was an extended release capsule. Chewing the capsule could release the entire day’s dose at once, resulting in an unintended overdose.

We know that consumers are receiving information – sometimes too much information. Not only are consumers receiving pages of medication information, the information they receive is uncoordinated and sometimes conflicting. Some documents are written by the drug manufacturer, and others are written by pharmacies or another third party. Some medication information documents are FDA-approved and others are not.

The real question is – could medication information be presented in such a way that it would be more useful for consumers? The answer is a resounding “yes.” One study found that just 75 percent of consumer medication information met the minimum criteria for usefulness.[ii] That number might be impressive as a field goal percentage in the NBA, but for consumers it represents an unmet need for high quality medication information.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has spent the past several years working with stakeholders to determine the most effective methods for conveying medication information. One overarching principle that has emerged from FDA’s engagement with the health care community is the need for a single, standardized document to replace the numerous existing documents. This document is identified as Patient Medication Information (PMI).

PMI creates an easier way for consumers to access and understand their medication information. By presenting the most salient pieces of information – including drug uses, warnings, side effects, and directions – on a single page that is easy to navigate, PMI can be a useful tool for enhancing treatments and preventing avoidable medication errors or side effects. PMI holds promise both for consumers and the broader health care system. For consumers, PMI could contribute to better outcomes and an overall improvement in patient experience. For health systems, PMI’s positive impact on medication adherence could improve performance on quality measures, such as hospital readmissions, that could lead to shared savings or other rewards.

Through a cooperative agreement, the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution has worked in collaboration with FDA over the past few years to convene a series of workshops focused on identifying best PMI practices – for example, how to make PMI both more usable and accessible.  Workshop participants identified several guiding principles for improving the content, format, and distribution of PMI.

PMI Guiding Principles

PMI content should be consumer-friendly. Expert stakeholders identified a lack of consumer-friendly information as one of the most important barriers to effectively communicating critical medication information. To fix this problem, the language used in PMI will need to be simplified, patient-centric, and understandable across the entire spectrum of health literacy levels. The types of information that should be included in PMI must be essential for taking a medication properly. Extraneous information, such as a discussion of previous treatments a consumer must have previously tried and failed before receiving the new prescription, may be more confusing than helpful.

The best PMI formats are simple and easy to navigate. Consumers don’t want to be given a technical-looking instruction manual when they pick up their prescriptions. Participants at the workshops generally agreed that it would be ideal to keep PMI to a single page. They also agreed that actionable headers that help consumers locate the information they are looking for are preferable to the question and answer format (e.g., “Uses” and “Directions” are more effective than “What does the drug treat?” and “How do I use the drug?”). There was consensus on the point that consumers will ultimately decide the best format.

Access to PMI will be bolstered by multiple channels of distribution. Paper is still the primary source of medication information, and is preferred by certain demographics. However, technology is revolutionizing the way consumers receive information. This is generally good for society, but it introduces some challenges, including the fact that consumers now have more access to information of questionable quality.  One method for ensuring access to consistent and high quality PMI would be to have a central repository for all PMI documents. This approach could support distribution of both printed and electronic PMI. Access to PMI could be further enhanced by making it available on smartphones and via email.

On July 1, the Center will convene a public meeting that will provide an opportunity for the health care community to discuss the issues mentioned above. Researchers will give an update on progress made since the previous meetings and share the lessons they learned from recent studies. Diverse stakeholders – including patient advocacy groups, providers, pharmacies, and drug manufacturers – will provide their perspectives on the future of PMI and assess their role in making high quality PMI a reality. 

There are many issues that need to be addressed in exploring the promise of PMI. However, one thing that participants at the July 1 meeting should remember is this: Keep it simple, stakeholders.

[i] Shrank, William, and Jerry Avorn. “Educating Patients About Their Medications: The Potential And Limitations of Written Drug Information.” Health Affairs26.3 (2007): 731-40. Health Affairs, May 2007. 

[ii] Kimberlin, Carole, and Almut Winterstein. Expert and Consumer Evaluation of Consumer Medication Information‐2008. Rep. University of Florida College of Pharmacy, 4 Nov. 2008. Web. 8 June 2014.