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How much attention do people pay to the risk information for prescription drugs?

If you said “not much,” you would be correct.

A recent study found that, while about 80 percent of those viewing risk information for a fictitious allergy drug claimed to have read at least half or more of the warnings, an eye-tracking tool found they actually read little to none of the cautionary material on a product website. Of 29 people, eight did not read any of the side effect disclosure, some of which was supposedly unique to this medicine.


In general, the participants — all of whom had been diagnosed with a seasonal allergy and reported suffering symptoms during the past year — had a very low recall level. Of 12 side effects mentioned, on average, the participants correctly recalled just one. And nearly 45 percent did not recall any risks, while 17 percent recalled just one risk (there is more information starting on slide 15 and running through slide 31).

The upshot is that “mere exposure to risks does not automatically indicate risk readership — no matter how fairly and well-balanced or clearly and conspicuously those risks may be presented,” according to the authors of the analysis, which was published online in the Journal of Risk Research in August, but was more widely publicized this week.


The goal of the study was to assess the extent to which people actually absorb risk information as they scroll along a product website, since previous studies showed mixed results when researchers have relied on trial participants to report whether they read anything. This explains why the researchers relied on eye-tracking tools, as well as a survey to then assess recollections.

The findings come amid ongoing concern that consumers do not read or have difficulty reading risk information. Last year, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft guidance that recommended drug makers offer “consumer-friendly” summaries of side effect warnings in print ads and promotional materials, which often duplicate the risk information in product labeling.

“The public health concern is that, if a drug contains novel or unique risks for the category, the consumer’s perceived familiarity hinders them from reading the risks and they overlook novel (or) unique risks with which they aren’t familiar — potentially to their detriment,” Mariea Hoy, a professor of advertising at the University of Tennessee and one of the study coauthors, wrote us.

Why might some people say they read the risk information when they did not? The researchers explained that a key explanation is that participants believed they were already familiar with allergies and needed medicines. “This perceived familiarity prompted participants to ignore the risk information and discount the commercial information source,” the study authors concluded.

Of course, there are limitations. Twenty-nine people is a small sample, which is why the researchers concede this was an exploratory study. Moreover, the participants were already familiar with the condition and, presumably, drugs used to treat symptoms. On the other hand, the researchers maintain this provides impetus for examining why some people do not bother reading important information.

So what might be done? The authors speculated that most people start reading websites at the top of a screen and so they suggest designing webpages in which risks are visible before information about the benefits of a medicine. “By putting the risk information before the benefits, they might be more likely to notice the risk and read more of the risks,” Hoy wrote us.

Whether drug makers would embrace such a notion is unclear. After all, a product is sold by its attributes first. Then again, if drug companies are made aware that risks are presented in a way that customers are not processing the information, perhaps they might face some type of liability. Most likely, there will be further studies into this subject before any of this gets decided.

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