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Failure to Translate Drug Information is a Prescription for Deadly Errors

Prescription drug errors are a serious cause of death and injury in the United States. As we reported earlier this year, Portland’s KATU found that 15,000 people are killed each year by prescription pills in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that medication errors kill at least one person every day in the United States, and injury 1.3 million others each year. These drug errors often result in lawsuits over personal injury or even wrongful death.

In a recent article, California Health Report described a different type of prescription drug problem that we don’t often think about that is becoming much more serious as our country becomes more and more diverse. According to the United States Census Bureau, one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home. However, many pharmacies only provide drug information and instructions in English. And that English, especially the English regarding side effects and drug interactions, can be difficult to understand for even a native English speaker.

An Example

The California Health Report article offers the example of Ms. Carolina Paniagua. When Ms. Paniagua first immigrated to the United States, she did not speak any English at all. Her two young sons became ill with typical childhood illnesses, and she took them to a doctor. The doctor gave her prescriptions, which she filled, but she had no idea how to administer the drugs to her sons. She had to resort to finding bilingual parents at her boys’ school who could translate the instructions for her so she could administer the medications.

While Ms. Paniagua was able to find a translator, it is easy to imagine that some members of our community may not be as resourceful. Older immigrants or other immigrants who do not have schools or other institutions to tie them to bilingual people may not be able to get a reliable translation. And some people may have illnesses or medications that embarrass them, so they may not seek out help with translation. A person being treated for a sexually transmitted infection may understandably be uncomfortable seeking out translation assistance.

In a first step toward solving this problem, some agencies, including the California Board of Pharmacy, have started making translations of standard dosing instructions available. They are available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese. However, many pharmacists do not use the translations. Some are uncomfortable using translations for languages they do not speak, because they themselves do not speak the language in question, and understandably do not want to give instructions that may not be accurate.

Whatever the solution to this issue may be, it certainly warrants serious consideration. Even when everyone involved speaks the same language, prescription errors lead to injury and death. Adding a language barrier to an already extremely large problem complicates the prescription process to an unacceptable degree.

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