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Who’s Influencing Patients When They Can’t Understand What We’re Saying?

Author: Susan Abdel-Rahman, PharmD Published on 9/16/2020 7:16:00 AM

Like some of you, I was perplexed by the recent statements of FDA Commissioner Hahn regarding the benefits of convalescent plasma for treating COVID-19 in the wake of emergency use authorization. If high-ranking, medically-trained, individuals are capable of perpetuating errors when communicating statistical and probabilistic data what chance do patients have of processing important health information?

Even well-intentioned efforts at enhancing patient communication can fail in spectacular fashion. Case in point: if you saw the following auxiliary labels on your prescription bottle, without the accompanying text, would you know what they mean?

pharmacy labels 2020

I use these examples when teaching a ‘Health Literacy’ primer at our local Art Institute and there hasn’t been a single semester where my creatively-minded students correctly guessed their meaning (keep reading to find out if you are correct).

Is it any wonder that the public is turning to pop culture? Television viewers cite entertainment programming as one of their top three sources for health information. A full 48% of soap opera viewers report learning about disease and prevention from daytime dramas and 34% have taken action as a result. For primetime viewers, those numbers are even higher.

Enter HHS... not the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), but Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a group run out of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that collaborates with the entertainment industry to provide accurate health information for story lines. Lest you think the influence of entertainment education is overstated, look no further than the Prism award (presented in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), the Sentinel award (presented in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the SHINE award, and the Turner prize.

My questions to you:
  1. As leading experts in the field of pharmacology, do we have a responsibility for constructing effective lay communication?
  2. Is there a role for ASCPT in the education of patients?
  3. What about our responsibility as a 501(c)(3), a designation reserved for organizations serving the public good?
  4. Can we afford to rely on political hyperbole and Hollywood to ensure that patients understand the inherent risks and benefits of the medicines we so carefully study?
I don’t know the right answer to these questions though I do have an opinion. I am also certain that an undertaking of this nature would require extensive engagement by a diverse groups of member volunteers within ASCPT. So, I am asking you to take a moment to share your views on the questions posed above. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to contemplate how the designers that brought you the auxiliary labels presented above decided on those images to represent (left) “Do not take if you become pregnant” and (right) “Do not chew or crush, swallow whole.”

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