Drug Labeling Puts People With Vision Loss At Medical Risk

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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Would you feel safe taking a dose of medication if you were not fully confident you were taking the correct amount? What would you do if you couldn't read important drug information on prescription bottles or package inserts? For the more than 20 million people living with vision loss, not being able to read drug container labels and package inserts is a scary reality and a significant public health challenge.

A recent survey by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) found that people with vision loss were unable to read necessary instructions supplied with prescription and over-the-counter medications, often leading to taking the wrong medication, taking the improper dosage of a medication, and in some extreme cases, becoming ill or having to visit the emergency room.

"Not having access to the information on prescription labels is extremely dangerous for people with vision loss," said Mark Richert, Director of Public Policy at AFB. "We need policy makers, retailers, and others to work together to ensure that prescription labeling is accessible, and that all people can take their medication effectively, independently, and most importantly, safely."

The Access to Drug Labels Survey explored the personal stories of people who had trouble reading prescription or over-the-counter medication information. It was conducted as part of AFB's Rx Label Enable Campaign, an initiative to ensure that people with vision loss have access to the vital information available to all consumers via prescription labeling and related documentation. Data from the survey indicated that the inability to access necessary instructions supplied with prescription and over-the-counter medications often resulted in people with vision loss:

* taking the wrong medication;

* becoming ill due to taking the wrong medication or taking the incorrect dosage of medication;

* visiting the emergency room or hospitalization;

* depending on sighted companions or complete strangers to convey necessary drug information.

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Below are some specific examples of participants' experiences:

Parents unable to detect pharmacy error made to their infant's medication

A husband and wife who are both legally blind are parents of an infant and are unable to read drug labeling information. They had been given the wrong medication for their baby by a pharmacy and the only reason they figured this out was because they had been prescribed the medication on a previous occasion and the packaging was so different that they asked a sighted neighbor who happened to be visiting to read the label. The mistake made by the pharmacy could have been lethal.

Young man has to visit the emergency room because he could not read insulin label

A 20-year-old respondent explained he had received the wrong dosage of insulin due to not being able to read the label. The prescription was for 50-unit insulin syringes and the pharmacy filled it with 100-unit syringes. He passed out from hypoglycemia and ended up in the hospital.

65-year-old grandmother confuses blood pressure and antidepressant medication

A respondent who has low vision regularly takes prescriptions with labels that have very small print. She often confuses blood pressure medicine with stomach or antidepressant medication. She has developed her own method of labeling her pill bottles in an effort to avoid further confusion.

Even though people of all ages with different degrees of vision loss are affected by the negative consequences of inaccessible drug labeling information, there are currently no federal or state requirements for the format of information on prescription labels.

"While some assistive devices can help people with vision loss manage medications, these technologies are not widely available," said Stacy Kelly, Ed.D., Policy Research Associate, AFB. "It is our hope that as Congress takes up healthcare reform legislation this year, one of its priorities will be to ensure that prescription drug labels and instructions are accessible to people with vision loss."

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