Do consumers really read risk warnings on prescription drug websites?


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Raise your hand if you read the risk warnings on drug websites before taking any medication your doctor prescribes to you. We admit it. We don't. And it looks like many people don't, either, according to Mariea Hoy, an advertising professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Last month, Hoy presented her findings in Washington, D.C., at a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) workshop called "Putting Disclosures to Test." She and former UT faculty member Abbey Levenshus conducted the research, and their findings were recently published in the Journal of Risk Research.

"We looked at whether consumers seek out, notice and read risk disclosures on a branded drug website," Hoy said.

She and Levenshus recruited 29 people with seasonal allergies to participate in their study. Those people were told that the researchers were studying how individuals look for health information online and that they would be looking at a website for a new prescription allergy drug. The website included a warning section, listing the risks associated with the drug.

To determine how much attention the people paid to the risk warnings, the researchers:

  • Tracked eye movement to see where and how long the participants looked at something.
  • Gave participants survey questions asking them how much of the risk information they read.
  • Conducted a post-task interview to review the information the participants took in.

Hoy and Levenshus concluded that although 80% of the study participants claimed to have read half of the information or more, they had done only limited reading and had limited recall of the listed risks.

"This study's eye-tracking, survey and interview data have demonstrated 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," they said.

The team also found that most of the study participants focused on the drug's benefits and ignored the risks.

"Perceived familiarity with the health condition, its risks and companion drug options surfaced as the primary explanation for failure to seek, and subsequently process, the risk information," the pair added.

To increase consumers' attention to risks, Hoy and Levenshus recommend that drug manufacturers present risks before benefits and graphically highlight with borders or colors any risk information unique to the drug.