Drugmaker Merck & Co. soon will be shipping many of its top medications to pharmacies in containers with labels redesigned to prevent dispensing errors.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the revamped container labels late Friday. They have a new standardized format to make them easier to read and make it easier to distinguish among drugs and dosage strengths.
Merck spent about three years working with several FDA divisions to revamp the layout and content of the medicine containers shipped to pharmacies.
Pharmacies typically have shelves stocked with thousands of similar-looking bottles containing 200 to 1,000 pills each. Pills are then transferred from those into small bottles to fill individual prescriptions.
"That step is prone to error," Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, Merck's chief medical officer, told The Associated Press.
He said the Merck team made a number of label changes to prevent mistakes. Those include increasing the font size of the drug's brand and chemical names, adding a 3-D picture of the medicine tablet, moving the drug's expiration date and special coding needed by the pharmacist to more prominent positions, and putting two color-coded bands on the bottles, one for the brand and a second one for the dosage strength.
"This was no small undertaking, and we are hopeful that Merck's new standardized labels will aid in reducing pharmacy selection errors," Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement.
Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., said it made the changes to have this information in consistent positions and sizes on the bottle labels, which previously varied from drug to drug.
"We are not aware of other companies that have undertaken an effort of this extent," said Merck spokesman David Caouette.
The FDA did not mandate the changes, he said.
An FDA spokeswoman did not immediately return a call seeking comment late Friday.
The revised labels will go on 16 different oral medications, including diabetes pills Januvia and Janumet, asthma and allergy drug Singulair, baldness pill Propecia and Isentress for HIV.
Rosenblatt said there's still a need to improve the smaller labels that go on individual prescriptions, bearing the patient's name, doctor's name, dosing instructions and other information, because they often look confusingly similar inside one's medicine cabinet.