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Just the Drug Facts: Helping Patients Understand Medications

Saturday, November 28, 2015
Catalina Gorla
Co-author Catalina Gorla (featured left) is the COO and co-founder of Informulary, Inc., a Dartmouth College spin-out that creates tools like the DrugFactsBox to help people understand what drugs can and cannot do.  | 

Consumer Reports magazine and Informulary - a drug data company - recently ran a series of focus groups to find out how people think about prescription drugs. They learned 3 things.

First, people strongly believe they can find all the information they need online. Unfortunately, with online medication info, if the information is free, there’s a good chance it’s marketing masquerading as fact.

Second, people also look for answers on side effects in crowd-sourced data or anonymous patient reviews. But this source is also fraught with issues – who’s really doing the rankings and why? The answers from a self-selected group of people “liking” a medicine can be very misleading.

Mainly, they learned that despite confidence in online sources, people have lots of questions and few good answers. When a patient gets a new drug, they want to know:

•    Is it safe?
•    Can it help me?
•    Is this drug worth the cost?
•    If I can’t feel the benefit, why should I keep taking it?

We know that engaging patients in a shared decision making process around the decision to start a new medication can help them understand why they’re taking it and improve adherence. But it can still be challenging for clinicians and patients to get credible answers to these questions.

The best way to get prescription drug information is the FDA itself. Before it approves a drug, FDA medical and statistical experts review all the data and make it freely available. They see all the evidence, including studies where the drug didn't work. You can learn what these independent experts think about how drug benefits and side effects stack up and what open questions remain about benefits and side effects.

FDA documents are a goldmine of information. They can be found at Drugs@FDA, and there’s a video explanation on how to use the site published in the BMJ. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to find what you’re looking for. The documents aren’t organized in a standard way and can often number in the 1,000s of pages.

A new resource, the DrugFactsBox library, summarizes the FDA information in a clinician and patient-friendly format. Developed based on years of research by Drs. Woloshin and Schwartz, professors at the Dartmouth Institute, the library is currently in beta at, so anyone (clinicians and patients) can freely access information on 5 medications.

Feedback on DrugFactsBox is welcomed via this form or you can contact Catalina directly at

Tags: patient engagement, shared decision making
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