Many U.S. Immigrants Can’t Read Prescription Labels

New York City study finds most instructions aren’t translated

By Robert Preidt 

FRIDAY, April 27, 2007 (HealthDay News) — Few New York City pharmacies translate prescription drug labels from English into other languages, posing a serious risk to patients who don’t speak English, researchers say.

“Imagine, as an English speaker, picking up a prescription with a label in Chinese — you have no idea what it says. Many New York immigrants face such high-risk gaps in our health-care services when presented with a medication bottle in English,” lead author Linda Weiss, a senior research associate at the a New York Academy of Medicine, said in prepared statement.

Her team randomly surveyed 200 of the 2,186 licensed pharmacies in New York City in 2006 and found that 88 percent reported serving “limited English proficient” (LEP) customers daily. However, only 34 percent reported translating prescription labels daily, even though 80 percent said they could do it. Another 26 percent of the pharmacies said they never translate labels.

The study authors noted that about 25 percent of New Yorkers cannot speak or read English well, and 46 percent speak a language other than English.

“New York City pharmacies would engage in good health and business practices by providing labels and health counseling in languages their patients understand,” Weiss said.

Reasons cited by pharmacies for not providing full language services included the need for additional translation tools (24 percent) and bilingual personnel (20 percent), time (7 percent), and cost (7 percent).

Five percent of pharmacies also cited legal concerns, fearing they’d be held liable if they printed medication information in a language they didn’t understand and failed to detect a flawed translation.

“If pharmacies don’t have multilingual staff, then label translation software is widely available. This is a simple, feasible and low-cost initial step to help patients,” study co-author Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, of Columbia University’s Center for the Health of Urban Minorities, said in a prepared statement.

The study was expected to be presented Friday at the annual meeting of the Society for General Internal Medicine, in Toronto.

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2 thoughts on “Many U.S. Immigrants Can’t Read Prescription Labels

  1. I think it’s a 50/50 deal. The doctor shouldn’t get off that quick and rely on the pharmacist. However, it’s the pharm. duty to ensure the client is informed when the purchase of the drug is made. You’re right – tough call. Hope it’s not a no win situation.

  2. It’s a tough call really. I figure the doctor who prescribes the medicine should give them a nice write-out and discussion of the medications first. I totally agree with the pharmacy on the translation software – if there is a mistranslation and someone dies the pharmacist is liable. They want to make sure the directions are completely correct.

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