For Release: October 4, 2007
Contact: DMS Communications 603-650-1492

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Inside the Box: Consumers Can Decipher Drug Information Table

HANOVER, NH—Just the facts, please, on how a drug helps or harms, presented in a clear table and the consumer can understand them, report Dartmouth Medical School/VA physicians. The findings help overturn the notion that numeric data is too difficult for the general public and lend support to including tables to communicate balanced drug information.

From left, Drs. H. Gilbert Welch, Lisa Schwartz
and Steven Woloshin

Pharmaceutical advertisements marketed directly to the consumer often provide misleading or confusing information on how a drug works, according to the researchers. As a remedy, they have designed a "drug facts box" that features a "study findings table." People tested found the table display easy to comprehend and interpret, and most thought it should be mandatory in direct to consumer ads.

The study appears in the September/October issue of the journal, Medical Decision Making by Drs. Lisa Schwartz, Steven Woloshin, both associate professors, and H. Gilbert Welch, professor, of medicine and of community and family medicine, at Dartmouth Medical School and members of the Veterans Affairs Outcomes Group.

Providing data with drug performance derived from clinical trials is beneficial only if consumers can understand the format. So the team presented 274 participants with a drug facts box about tamoxifen, a drug used for primary prevention of breast cancer, to see how well they could read and use a data table of benefits and side effects, without any instructions.

The volunteers included 186 recruited from Dartmouth's Community Medical School public lecture series and Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Center for Shared Decision Making, and 88 veterans and their families recruited from waiting rooms in the VA outpatient clinic in White River Junction, VT.

Participants successfully navigated the two-column study findings table and extracted data, on average correctly answering four of the five table comprehension questions that the physicians asked. The majority—89 percent—properly used the table to determine the percentage of women given tamoxifen who got a blood clot in their legs or lungs; 71 percent could calculate the absolute difference in the proportion of women who got breast cancer in the tamoxifen versus the placebo group. And most were also able to make comparisons. For example, more than two thirds were able to choose the better drug in two scenarios, tasks that required comparing percentages.

Although college graduates did slightly better, most participants—even those with the lower formal educational attainment—were able to navigate the table and apply the data. The study did not assess actual decision making, but it demonstrates the potential accessibility of tables for drug facts. The team encourages broader use of the format to help provide more complete and better balanced drug information to the public.


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