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Medicine labels need decluttering, but the BNF have got it all wrong says Copperfield




The British National Formulary Committee have decided that the infamous, 'May Cause Drowsiness' label's days are numbered because it might confuse people.

Before long sleeping pills will have to be labelled 'this medicine might make you feel sleepy'. Thanks for clearing that one up, guys.

'Do not stop taking this medicine except on your doctor's advice', will be rewritten as 'Do not stop taking this medicine unless your doctor tells you to stop', which not only has one grating 'stop' too many but isn't really any more informative than the original.

Then there are the leaflets stuffed into each packet of ibuprofen, 'This medicine is for the relief of headache' which go on to say, 'May cause aseptic meningitis, which can include symptoms such as headache, and severe headache.' No room for confusion there then.

As a bloke who proudly sported T-shirts reading 'Books Are Weapons' and 'Knowledge Is Power' in my youth, you might think I'd be all in favour of getting useful facts into patients' heads. But I'm coming to the conclusion that most of their heads are either already full of really important stuff like on which arm the names of their children are tattooed or they're completely empty, Pumpkin Positive style. Either way, closely typed A4 printouts from the NHS website aren't proving to be much help.

A good article in the Guardian illustrated why smart people should simply ignore the labels, printouts and leaflets anyway. Bloke absent mindedly brushed his teeth with clotrimazole cream rather than toothpaste, read the label, 'For external use only' and found himself seeking the urgent medical help the packaging insisted that he needed. With hilarious results.

The thing is that amongst the barrage of supposedly vital information patients have to deal with there's usually some genuinely important stuff. And they're either too dim or too busy being ill or too worried about their best mate who's ill to pick it out.

Drive through any city centre and see how hard it is to spot the road signs that matter, like 'STOP!' among those that simply tell you that you're driving through a neighbourhood watch area monitored by CCTV whose residents' non-recyclable trash is collected on alternate Wednesdays and whose council is working to make the borough a safer place by issuing on the spot fines for dog fouling and littering.

Some towns are removing as many superfluous signs as possible, or even just turning them around so they're out of drivers' line of vision and it's reducing the number of accidents. I think we should declutter medicine labels too, if only to stop the worried well from developing every side-effect on the list.

A kid I saw the other day was recovering more slowly than you'd expect from a routine rotavirus infection. All along the family had been given the usual advice about pushing fluids and as the diarrhoea hadn't settled, avoiding dairy. So they poured enough rehydrating solution into the noisy end to keep him nicely hydrated and insisted that they were keeping him lactose free. And he filled a nappy every half hour for three days.

One large portion of parental panic later I chatted up the local paediatrician, whose first words were, 'It's lactose intolerance, what else could it be?' I know, but Grandma swears he's had no dairy for ages.

Just as they were setting off to A&E for 'some more tests' I asked one last time, 'Are you sure he's having nothing that might contain lactose? No dairy, nothing?' 'Nothing. Just those powder sachets, some rice and - and here comes the Homer Simpson forehead slap - his SMA'.

Supermarket smoked salmon wrappers carry the warning 'Salmon: Contains fish'. And I wondered who it was aimed at but now I know because I've met them.

Instead of the massively uninteresting - unless you're an obsessional compulsive or a paediatric dietician – blurb on the side of the SMA tin, I wonder whether there should just have been a big red label reading, 'Infant formula milk: Contains Milk.'

'Sick Notes' by Dr Tony Copperfield is out now, available from Monday Books

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