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Side Effects? What Side Effects?

A study that used eye-tracking technology to find out whether or not consumers read the risk information on branded drug websites found considerable disparity between reported reading and actual reading.

“In general, eye-tracking data told us that participants had limited to no risk reading, but approximately 80 percent self-reported that they had read half or more of the risks,” says Mariea Hoy, a professor in the School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Tennessee, and lead author of the study (1).

Of the 12 risks mentioned on the website, nearly half of the participants recalled no risks at all, 17.2 percent recalled just one, and none recalled more than four. “In the case of seasonal allergy drugs, our interviews suggested that perceived familiarity was the primary reason patients didn’t read the risk disclosures,” says Hoy (pictured). “The participants thought they knew all about antihistamines and said they weren’t concerned about looking for risk information – which prompted optimism bias – resulting in them totally missing the novel risks for the particular drug.”

So how can we make sure patients are reading and understanding risk and side effects information? According to Hoy, one simple mechanism could be to present the risks before the benefits. “Eye tracking shows that people start at the top of the screen and then look down, searching for the benefit information. By putting the risk information before the benefits, it may make the information more noticeable.”

The one problem with this solution, however, is that few marketers would be willing to present negative information before product benefits. Hoy suggests a compromise where drug manufacturers present any risks that are novel or unique to the drug class first. “Another method that could be employed would be to create a sense of ‘unfamiliarity’ if there are risks that are unique or novel to the drug class,” says Hoy.

There are still a number of questions that Hoy would like to see answered. She adds, “An important next step would be to see how these findings might differ based on the individual’s familiarity with the drug category, or the severity of the condition the drug treats, or whether the person is gleaning information on behalf of themselves or another.

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  1. MG Hoy and AB Levenshus, “A mixed-methods approach to assessing actual risk readership on branded drug websites”, J Risk Res, 1-18 (2016).
About the Author
James Strachan

Over the course of my Biomedical Sciences degree it dawned on me that my goal of becoming a scientist didn’t quite mesh with my lack of affinity for lab work. Thinking on my decision to pursue biology rather than English at age 15 – despite an aptitude for the latter – I realized that science writing was a way to combine what I loved with what I was good at.


From there I set out to gather as much freelancing experience as I could, spending 2 years developing scientific content for International Innovation, before completing an MSc in Science Communication. After gaining invaluable experience in supporting the communications efforts of CERN and IN-PART, I joined Texere – where I am focused on producing consistently engaging, cutting-edge and innovative content for our specialist audiences around the world.

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