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OpinionOpEd

OPINION: For safety, improve Rx labeling

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by William Brown

Gwen O'Shea is president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. Nisha Agarwal is director of the Health Justice Program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Theo Oshiro is director of Health Advocacy for Make the Road New York.

Every year, accidental misuse of prescription drugs sends more than 700,000 people to the emergency room. Some 100,000 of those visits lead to hospitalizations.

As medication regimens become more complex, even highly educated consumers can take their medications incorrectly. Unknowing addiction, adverse drug reactions and inability to follow medication treatments are just some of the potential hazards associated with prescription drug instructions that are too variable and complicated for many patients to understand.

The good news is that New York State is looking to make things easier for patients with new legislation that would vastly improve the ability of patients to understand how to take their prescription medications safely and effectively. The SafeRx bill, introduced by Senate Health Committee chairman Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) and Assembly Health Committee chairman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), calls for the creation of standardized, patient-centered prescription drug labels so that medication instructions are easier to understand and keep track of.

Many of us know the feeling of being confused by the instructions on a medication label. Accidental misuse of prescriptions is an especially serious problem among seniors, who tend to take prescription medications more frequently and for whom age-related declines in vision, memory and cognitive skills can make small print and complicated labeling especially problematic.

Long Islanders should pay close attention to this issue, because the recently released census data show that our population of senior citizens increased by 10 percent since 2000. Medication labels that are difficult to understand not only put the lives and well-being of Long Island's increasingly aging population at risk, but also place additional burdens on already under-resourced emergency rooms and hospitals, costing an extra $3 billion per year in health care spending.

The recent census also shows that Long Island is becoming more diverse. The population of Latinos in Nassau County grew by almost 50 percent in the past 10 years, and in Suffolk by almost 60 percent. Some of these new Long Island residents are still learning English, and the bill calls for pharmacies to provide labels in the top languages spoken in New York State, and for the provision of interpretation services. This would ensure that New Yorkers who have limited English skills can understand how to take their medication safely and effectively.

This is evidence-based health policy at its best: Extensive research demonstrates that standardized medication labels and the elimination of language barriers in the pharmacy can significantly improve patient understanding of medication instructions and reduce accidental misuse of drugs. What's more, the legislation makes sense in our current economic climate. The law would have little if any cost burden on the state, and the cost for pharmacies is minimal, since technological innovations already have made upgrading systems and providing translation easy, affordable and a good investment to attract customers. This type of legislation also shows that state government is responsive to demographic trends and our evolving needs as a state, and as a Long Island community.

Soon, New York will be establishing a state health insurance exchange as part of the national health-care reform law. The SafeRx bill is a critical complement to these broader reforms, as it would reduce costs and prevent injuries resulting from accidental misuse of medicine. Standardizing drug labels is a crucial component of ensuring that seniors and immigrants have access to affordable and effective health care. The legislative session is scheduled to end on June 20; Albany ought to act soon to make this proposal into law.

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