The Applied Vision Institute, a leader in the assessment of eye movements, is carrying out research to monitor what information people take in when reading different types of medical labels.
Prof Alastair Gale, the institute's director, said: "A recent American study concluded that about a quarter of medication errors relate to labelling and packaging factors. Many tablets have unusual names which can look confusingly similar. Additional medicinal packages can be similar in shape and colour and this can cause problems, either to the consumer who might be rushing to make a purchase, or the pharmacist in selecting the pack from the shelf."
Prof Gale believes that existing as well as new labelling and packaging designs need to be assessed appropriately to help minimise the potential for human error.
Research has so far involved focus groups of people being observed by researchers as they look at slides of different types of medical packaging.
Researchers have then monitored the eye movement and direction, to see what the individuals look at first. Detailed questionnaires afterwards indicate what information the individual has understood and their attention to detail.
The research suggests that problems can arise when drug manufacturers use labelling and colouring to identify their brand, but do so in a way that makes it difficult to identify the actual product or the product strength. People often identify a product by its pack colour and shape, and if manufacturers use the same format for a range of doses, the chance for medication errors can rise.
Prof Gale also notes that there can be problems when generic names of two different drugs are similar, such as the cancer drugs vinblastine and vincristine. One solution, likely to benefit pharmacists more than patients, is to used capitalisation of the key areas of difference (e.g. vinBLASTine and vinCRISTine, a technique known as tall man lettering.