If half the time you asked for directions, they were wrong and you got lost, you would be upset, right? What if half the time, it resulted in you bleeding in a ditch on the wrong side of town? Upset would no longer describe what you are feeling. Fear might.
Most people take prescription medication hoping to feel better, yet for non-English speakers, mistakenly translated prescription labels can make taking their meds a fearful experience.
According to a 2010 study of Bronx pharmacies conducted by Iman Sharif while at Montefiore Medical Center, the computer programs used to translate prescription labels had an overall error rate of 50%.
If “once a day” gets translated to “eleven times a day”, that’s close enough, right? What can it hurt if its not right? I’m sure eleven doses of an anti-seizure medication would be fine.
The software helps them comply with legal requirements to provide translation services but is it true compliance if half the time it’s incorrect and potentially lethal?
If you end up in a hospital or clinic, most states require non-English speakers receive translation services. Pharmacies, however, do not fall under this domain. Only one state, California, legislates translation services be provided in pharmacies.
In New York City, the Language Access in Pharmacies Act requires pharmacies with four or more locations provide non-English speakers with free and accurately translated labels, warnings, ingredients and brochures. They also must post signs in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Polish, Italian and French stating they provide such services.
The advocacy groups that implemented this Act, Make the Road New York and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest are currently pushing to expand this legislation to the rest of the state. To check their efficacy, the groups surveyed seven national chain pharmacies with 250 branches in New York State and found in locations outside NYC, about 50% of the pharmacies did not supply translated drug labels and 30% did not provide interpretation services.
Taking prescription medicines should not involve fear. “It’s easy to be seriously injured or killed by your medication,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhatten) who recently reintroduced the bill to expand the legislation.
“Folks are not getting the language services that they need,” said Theo Oshiro of Director of Health Advocacy and Support Services for Make the Road New York. “They are not able to take their medicines or are hurting themselves because they don’t understand the language that is used. If you are not providing language services to these folks, you are not counseling them appropriately.”