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Clear English coming to your medicine cabinet

Confusing instructions on medicine bottles and packets of pills dispensed from UK pharmacies are to be replaced with simpler words and phrases from this month.

The change follows work by researchers at the University of Leeds, in collaboration with the Leeds-based company Luto Research, which revealed that many commonly-used phrases on medicine labels are easily misunderstood.

The switch to clearer language will help make sure that patients take their medicines as they should. If this does not happen, the drugs are likely to be less effective and may not work at all. Patients also run the risk of getting unpleasant side effects, which in some cases may cause serious harm.

Around two million prescriptions are issued every day in the UK. By law, each bottle or packet that is dispensed by pharmacists must have a printed label that gives details on how to take the medicine. However, the Leeds research has shown that some of the standard phrases that are printed on these labels can be confusing, causing patients to behave in ways that compromises the safety and effectiveness of their treatment.

"It is vital that wordings on labels are simple and straightforward," said University of Leeds' Professor of Pharmacy Theo Raynor. "Most medicines do contain leaflets providing detailed information for patients, but these leaflets can get lost or overlooked. Patients' behaviour tends to be guided by the instructions on the outside of medicine bottles and packets of pills, so these must be as clear and unambiguous as possible."

Professor Raynor and colleagues tested a selection of instructions on a large number of volunteers from the general public aged 20 to 80 years old. They re-worded any phrases that people found confusing using best practice in clear English. They then checked that their suggested revisions were easier to understand with more members of the public.

The proposed changes include terminology that is better understood by patients. For example, user testing showed the word 'drowsiness' is not always readily understood and has been improved by using the wording: 'This medicine may make you feel sleepy.'

"Another good example is the phrase 'avoid alcoholic drinks'. Our user tests have shown that the word 'avoid' can cause confusion and that some people think it only means they should limit their alcohol intake," Professor Raynor said. "This phrase will now be replaced by the instruction: 'do not drink alcohol while taking this medicine', which is far clearer."

The revised phrases have been included in the latest version of the British National Formulary, the drugs bible used by doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals.

"The software used by large pharmacy chains and independent pharmacist to print instruction labels is updated regularly, so we would expect to see these new phrases appear within the next six months," Professor Raynor said.

The work was carried out by a team led by Professor Theo Raynor and Dr Peter Knapp (both from University of Leeds, School of Healthcare) and David Bryant (General Manager, Luto Research).

For further information:

Paula Gould, University of Leeds press office: Tel 0113 343 8059, email p.a.gould@leeds.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  1. One of the UK's largest medical, health and bioscience research bases, the University of Leeds delivers world leading research in medical engineering, cancer, cardiovascular studies, epidemiology, molecular genetics, musculoskeletal medicine, dentistry, psychology and applied health. Treatments and initiatives developed in Leeds are transforming the lives of people worldwide with conditions such as diabetes, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. http://www.leeds.ac.uk
  2. The research team at the School of Healthcare at Leeds are leaders internationally in the field of medicines information for patients. Their work has influenced practice across the European Union. Professor Raynor recently gave evidence to the European Parliament, based on this research. Collaborations continue with universities in the US and Australia to research improvements to the medicines information provided to patients across the world.
  3. Luto Research Ltd was created as a spin-out company of the University of Leeds in 2004. Underpinned by its strong research base, Luto works with clients to enhance the clarity of information created for patients. Since its inception, it has carried out more than 15,000 individual participant interviews to ensure that patient information materials are fit for purpose. The participants are drawn largely from Leeds and surrounding areas in West Yorkshire. People who would like to take part in this work are invited to call 0113 384 5893 or visit http://www.luto.co.uk