Boxed warnings: Legal risks that many physicians never see coming


Almost all physicians write prescriptions, and each prescription requires a physician to assess the risks and benefits of the drug. If an adverse drug reaction occurs, physicians may be called on to defend their risk-benefit assessment in court.

Dr. Paul H. Axelsen, professor in the departments of pharmacology, biochemistry, and biophysics, and of medicine, infectious diseases section, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Dr. Paul H. Axelsen

The assessment of risk is complicated when there is a boxed warning that describes potentially serious and life-threatening adverse reactions associated with a drug. Some of our most commonly prescribed drugs have boxed warnings, and drugs that were initially approved by the Food and Drug Administration without boxed warnings may have them added years later.

One serious problem with boxed warnings is that there are no reliable mechanisms for making sure that physicians are aware of them. The warnings are typically not seen by physicians as printed product labels, just as physicians often don’t see the pills and capsules that they prescribe. Pharmacists who receive packaged drugs from manufacturers may be the only ones to see an actual printed boxed warning, but even those pharmacists have little reason to read each label and note changes when handling many bulk packages.

This problem is aggravated by misperceptions that many physicians have about boxed warnings and the increasingly intense scrutiny given to them by mass media and the courts. Lawyers can use boxed warnings to make a drug look dangerous, even when it’s not, and to make physicians look reckless when prescribing it. Therefore, it is important for physicians to understand what boxed warnings are, what they are not, the problems they cause, and how to minimize these problems.

What is a ‘boxed warning’?

The marketing and sale of drugs in the United States requires approval by the FDA. Approval requires manufacturers to prepare a document containing “Full Prescribing Information” for the drug and to include a printed copy in every package of the drug that is sold. This document is commonly called a “package insert,” but the FDA designates this document as the manufacturer’s product “label.”

In 1979, the FDA began requiring some labels to appear within thick, black rectangular borders; these have come to be known as boxed warnings. Boxed warnings are usually placed at the beginning of a label. They may be added to the label of a previously approved drug already on the market or included in the product label when first approved and marketed.

The requirement for a boxed warning most often arises when a signal appears during review of postmarketing surveillance data suggesting a possible and plausible association between a drug and an adverse reaction. Warnings may also be initiated in response to petitions from public interest groups, or upon the discovery of serious toxicity in animals. Regardless of their origin, the intent of a boxed warning is to highlight information that may have important therapeutic consequences and warrants heightened awareness among physicians.

What a boxed warning is not


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