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Meds and you

12 April 2010

Drug label accuracy: language issue

Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US are finding themselves at the dangerously wrong end of the monolingual culture when it comes to prescription medicines.

It may be safer, sometimes, to have 11 official languages rather than one. Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US are finding themselves at the dangerously wrong end of the monolingual culture when it comes to prescription medicines.

Computer programs that pharmacists rely on to translate prescription labels for non-English speaking customers often produce potentially harmful errors, new research indicates. Examples include translating "once a day" into "eleven times a day"; replacing "by mouth" with "by the little"; and translating "two times" into "two kiss." While nearly all of the pharmacies surveyed in the study said pharmacists checked label printouts for accuracy, most of these pharmacists weren't fluent in Spanish.

The consequences of such errors are "immediately apparent and frightening to any physician," Dr Iman Sharif and Julia Tse, who conducted the research, note in the journal Pediatrics.

There has been at least one documented case of such consequences, they add; a man who was supposed to take his two blood pressure medications once a day took 11 pills of each instead. (The word "once" in English means "eleven" in Spanish.)
 


To investigate whether Spanish speakers were being provided this service, Sharif and Tse, who is with Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, surveyed 286 pharmacies in the Bronx, New York -- where 44% of the population speaks Spanish -- about whether they provided medicine labels in Spanish to their customers who needed them.

About three-quarters did so. Among these pharmacies, nearly 90% used computers to translate labels from English into Spanish, 11% used staff members, and 3 percent used professional interpreters.

Sharif and Tse then looked at 76 medicine labels they had generated using 13 of the 14 computer programs pharmacists reported using for translation.

They found that half of all the labels contained serious mistakes. Thirty-two of the labels included incomplete translations and six contained major spelling or grammatical errors.

Computer translation programs can clearly be improved, Sharif said, but this doesn't mean a human being shouldn't be checking the computer's work. Ideally, she added, pharmacies should have professional translators on staff to ensure that labels are being translated properly. Figuring out how to pay for this, Sharif said, "is probably something that belongs within the health reform conversations."
 

 

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