Spanish prescription labels available, but quality at issue

A study shows patients can get labels in their native tongue, although sometimes they are not translated properly.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted March 20, 2006

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Many patients already have difficulty understanding the health jargon on prescription labels. But for many Spanish-speaking patients in the Bronx in New York City, that problem is compounded by the fact that about a third of the time the labels are only available in English, and the translations provided can be inaccurate.

According to a study in the February Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 69% of 111 Bronx pharmacies could provide prescription labels in Spanish. Of the pharmacies that did provide Spanish labels, 86% used a computer program to perform the translation and one had a Spanish-speaking pharmacist to check the translation's accuracy.

"The glass is half full," said Iman Sharif, MD, MPH, the study's lead author and a pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "As a physician, I didn't know that this was something that was so widely available."

On the down side, the study notes that an informal sampling of computer translations showed that terms such as "dropperful" and "for 30 days" were inaccurately interpreted.

"This study crystallizes in a very specific way how cultural barriers, in this case the linguistic barrier, can affect health," said Virginia Brennan, PhD, editor of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved and a professor at Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tenn., which publishes the quarterly journal.

The 2002 census figures show Spanish speakers accounted for 43% of the Bronx's population, with 44% of those Spanish-speakers' English considered poor.

Dr. Sharif recommended that doctors who have Spanish-speaking patients communicate any drug instructions verbally, have them translated by a professional, and have patients repeat the instructions to make sure they understand. Also, physicians should put a note on the prescription itself asking for a Spanish label.

Patients should know that they can ask for a label in their first language, Dr. Sharif said. "If they go to a pharmacy that doesn't have it available, they should go to another that does."

Dr. Sharif speculated that the availability rates of prescription labels in Spanish would be similar in other heavily Hispanic areas of the country, though she said further studies should be done.

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