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Research Aims to Standardize, Improve Medication Labels

Pills in a prescription bottle (


A study by Northwestern University’s medical school in Chicago will test new methods for physicians to write prescriptions and pharmacists to interpret those instructions for labels on drug containers. The pharmaceutical company Merck is funding the project, with participation from the drug store chain Walgreens and Alliance of Chicago community health centers.

Previous research at Northwestern indicates doctors’ instructions for taking multiple drugs are confusing many patients, thus patients may not be consolidating medicines and end up taking their pills more often than necessary. Project leader Michael Wolf, Northwestern professor of internal medicine and public health, calls current prescription methods “unnecessarily complicated, and all this variability contributes to people being confused and forgetting or neglecting to take all their medications. ”

The study will test if a system of prescribing medications at four standard intervals of dosing in the morning, noon, evening, and bedtime can improve patients’ understanding of their medication and improve their adherence to this regimen, particularly if it contributes to better management of chronic disease. Wolf calls these four time periods a Universal Medication Schedule.

The team will conduct the study with type 2 diabetes patients, likely to have more complex medication regimens. The 12 community health centers in the Alliance of Chicago network will provide the sites for the study.

One potential benefit of the research will be to encourage more standardization among electronic health records. While the use of electronic health records has grown, physician practices and pharmacies use different electronic systems for writing prescriptions and translating them onto the text on medicine labels. The study seeks to better connect those two types of systems and make them more consistent.

In addition, the researchers plan to reinforce the standard medication times by sending text reminders at morning, noon, evening, and bedtime intervals.  “Hopefully, this will provide the evidence we need,” says Wolf, “to support a new national standard for the prescribing and dispensing of medications.”

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