should translation of medication labels be mandatory

Most of us take it for granted that when we pick up our medications from the local pharmacy that the labels and accompanying instructions will be written in English. However, what if you went to pick up a prescription for yourself or a family member only to find that this information was written in a foreign language?

Unfortunately, this is the reality facing many Americans for whom English is not their first language.

According to safety advocates, these patients are actually at an elevated risk of suffering serious personal injuries or even dying as a result of prescription errors. That’s because the labels on their prescriptions aren’t giving them such basic information as when to take their medication, how often to take their medication and, of course, how much of their medication they should take.

Interestingly, regulators in one U.S. state are now actively considering taking steps to address this very serious health issue.

California’s Board of Pharmacy is currently exploring whether to mandate that all pharmacies provide patients with translated prescription drug labels. While the organization has provided translations of basic medication instructions on its website in five different languages — Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Vietnamese — officials say many pharmacies have opted not to use this resource.

While board officials argue this step is necessary given that 44 percent of state residents currently speak a language other than English and millions more people are being added to the health care system due to the Affordable Care Act, it is not being widely embraced by pharmacists.

Here, the primary concern is exposure to liability if an incorrect translation is made.

“If the label is translated into Russian and there’s an error, and I’m a pharmacist that does not speak Russian, I cannot verify that that error exists,” said an official with the California Pharmacists Association.

Another concern is that translated labels would result in larger prescription bottles, something that patients have proven resistant to in the past. Specifically, pharmacists fear that patients will transfer their medications out of the larger bottles into baggies or small containers thereby separating them from the necessary instructions.

It remains to be seen whether California will move forward with mandatory translated prescription labels. Such a move wouldn’t be without precedent as New York took this step just last year. If the Golden State does end up going this direction, it’s foreseeable that other states, like Pennsylvania, could follow suit.

What are your thoughts on making translated prescription bottles mandatory?

Source: National Public Radio, “California pharmacists resist translating medicine labels,” April Dembosky, July 30, 2014

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