// October 06, 2015

Improving Health Literacy: USP Pictograms

USP Pictograms Help Patients Understand Their Medications

Conveying medication use instructions to low-literacy patients and patients who are non-native speakers of a country’s official language is an oft-overlooked challenge pharmacists and healthcare professionals face. Failures to effectively communicate or comprehend this critical information may lead to over or underuse of a medication, improper medication storage, or may create a misunderstanding about what illness or condition the medication treats.

To help combat this issue, USP, through its Healthcare Quality Standards department and volunteer Healthcare Quality Expert Committee, offer Pictograms as a free resource to help ensure proper medication use. 

Developed in 1997, USP’s Pictograms bridge language divides and literacy challenges patients may encounter when receiving and self-administering medications. Pictograms are universally understandable illustrations that supplement written instructions, and intend to assist patients who may be confused by a phrase, term, or concept. 

USP offers three Pictogram types:

  • Prescription Instructions: illustrating how often, and by what method, to administer a medication
  • Purpose for Use: illustrating the medication’s purpose
  • Cautionary Statements: illustrating activities to avoid while on a medication, among other warnings

Industries and individuals with diverse needs—pharmacists and pharmacy students, low-literacy teachers, graphic designers, and healthcare workers developing medication guides, to name a few—rely on USP Pictograms to help them meet critical patient-focused objectives.

Consider: a patient is provided a medication, but struggles to understand how often to take it. This may lead to administering the medication too seldom or too often, diminishing its maximum therapeutic value. With a USP Pictogram to supplement written instructions, the patient knows to take the medication three times per day—morning, noon, and night.

Sample USP Pictogram


Consistent with USP’s mission to improve global public health, Pictograms improve health literacy—empowering patients to make informed choices about administering prescribed medications—and provide healthcare professionals and pharmacists with a useful tool to overcome communication and comprehension issues that may arise.

To download USP’s Pictogram Library, visit us here. To learn more about USP Healthcare Quality Standards, head to the USP & Healthcare Professionals section of our site.