ONCE UPON A TIME, the stupendously confusing labels that come with prescription medications were actually meant to help doctors better understand a drug and what side effects deserved a mention to their patients. Somewhere along the line, however, too many lawyers got involved and added every warning they could think up -- the spectacularly unhelpful "if you are allergic to this medication, don't use it" is popular -- in the hope that superfluous forewarning could protect drug makers from lawsuits. (Don't tell hypochondriacs, but that means many side effects listed on medications have little science behind them.)
The problem with this strategy, other than its absurdity and uselessness, is that research shows nine out of 10 doctors today don't read drug labels, a development that has undoubtedly led to a significant number of medical errors. Up to 300,000 people are harmed every year by medical mistakes, many involving the misuse of medications.
After reviewing the issue for five years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new rules last week to simplify drug labels. Under the changes, which take effect later this year, drug labels will look more like food labels, with a short highlight section at the beginning summarizing safety warnings, proper uses and doses for patients and advice about what doctors should say to their patients.