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What's being done to prevent look-alike and sound-alike product names?


From the August 12, 1998 issue

Sometimes readers ask what ISMP is doing to stop look-alike and sound-alike product names from being marketed. Answering this question gives us an opportunity to provide our readers with insight into the pharmaceutical trademark process, and how ISMP is working to make a positive difference.

Most major companies hire branding specialists to develop trademarks that meet marketing needs. We are pleased to report that, increasingly, the concerns of health professionals are being considered by many companies, even during the creative name development process. While ISMP rarely takes part in the creative development phase, we are told that the potential for medication errors is considered. Once the company has a "short list" of potential names for a new drug, the list is given to a trademark attorney who searches registration files in many countries to determine if the candidates sound or look like existing registrations. This is a complex process. Not all trademarks in the registration file are on the market, and not all marketed products have a registered trademark. In addition, neither the company trademark attorney, nor the examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office, has access to the many generic names, medical terms or medical abbreviations that can increase confusion and lead to medical errors.

Increasingly, companies are taking additional measures to determine if there are unacceptable similarities between the proposed trademark and products on the market. Therefore, a growing number of companies are now turning to ISMP as an unbiased resource for error evaluation. The guiding principle for ISMP trademark evaluation is built upon Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), a technique that places proposed trademarks in a clinical or pharmacy context and simulates actual work conditions. Thus, practicing nurses, pharmacists and physicians are a major source of information during ISMP's error evaluation process. There are several other error evaluation services available to companies. We anticipate that even more will become available as the FDA, and other regulatory groups around the world, encourage error potential evaluations. Toward that end, the FDA has established a Labeling and Nomenclature Committee to review every trademark as part of the new drug application (NDA) process. Among the criteria for the FDA trademark review are look- and sound-alike issues.

To help us meet the needs of the pharmaceutical industry, ISMP created a separate division, MED-ERRS, which stands for Medical Error Recognition and Revision Strategies. Through MED-ERRS, we are able to provide an evaluation service that preserves the confidentiality of proprietary information while making extensive use of pharmacists, nurses and other health care professionals from the US and around the world to provide input on potential errors. We use the Internet and other channels to communicate and gather data for the research. ISMP also works with Bruce Lambert, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois, who developed a unique computer modeling program to calculate similarities in trademarks using formulas drawn from the science of psycholinguistics (Lambert BL. Predicting look-alike and sound-alike medication errors. Am J Health-Syst Pharm 1997;54:1161-71). When combined with the insights of health professionals that would be using the product, the output from the computer program, named PREDICTÔ, helps MED-ERRS identify flaws in trademarks early enough in the process to prevent problem names from reaching the market. HELP WANTED: If you would like to be involved in error evaluation of trademarks, please send us a letter or e-mail (ismpinfo@ismp.org). We will be glad to add you to the list of practitioners who help with this work.

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