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Packaging Should Be Used to Improve Health Literacy

June 16, 2010 – 6:26 pm

How important is health literacy to patient outcomes? I found an interesting blog post on this topic on Twitter courtesy of @JNJComm, aka Marc Monseau. The blog was written by Scott C. Ratzan, MD, MPA, Vice President, Global Health, Government Affairs & Policy, Johnson & Johnson. “The way people interact with the health system has great impact on whether they can improve their health,” he wrote. “And improving people’s understanding of health information is an important first step.”

Ratzan wrote that he was pleased that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, and I am, too. I hope, though, that the impact that packaging and labeling technology could have on health literacy will also be considered.

“Basic health literacy is fundamental to the success of each interaction between health care professionals and patients—every prescription, every treatment, every recovery,” wrote Howard Koh, M.D., M.P.H., assistant secretary of health in the plan’s foreword. Much of the plan discusses “health literacy” in general terms, such as improving “patient-provider communication” such as “written materials, videos, or other targeted approaches to patient education.”

While I didn’t find any direct references to packaging or labeling, the plan does say that “studies have shown that picture-based instructions promote better understanding of how to take medication and decrease medication errors among patients.”

I firmly believe that packaging is an important, yet underused technology that can do so much to support patient education. Beyond its primary function of protecting product efficacy, packaging can also communicate use instructions and even clarify complicated regimens, if designed properly. And unlike doctor handouts or pharmacy-generated materials, which could end up in the file cabinet or worse yet, the waste bin, packaging can stay with the product, keeping those instructions literally at hand.

So look for ways to add those “picture-based instructions” to packaging and labeling. The HHS plan advises that researchers, evaluators, and funders “explore technology-based interventions to improve health literacy.”  I would like to volunteer packaging technology for that job.

Daphne Allen

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