Language Barrier Affects Drug Treatment Of Children


Language Barrier Affects Drug Treatment Of Children

Chain Drug Review - April 28, 2003

A recent survey of nearly 600 people who speak English as a second language shows nearly one in 10 children are being given prescriptions incorrectly.

The root of the problem is two-fold, the researchers behind the survey say: parents who don’t fully understand the English instructions on labels improperly giving their children medications and others leaving physicians’ offices without being clear about how to use their medications because of a language barrier.

The problem transcends just prescriptions being given to children, the survey’s sponsors, TransPerfect Translations, maintain. Adults with a limited grasp of English are as likely to misuse medications for themselves as they are to make errors for their children.

In fact, the survey finds 28% of patients guessed at what the proper dosage was for their medications because they were unsure what their prescription said. Seventeen percent performed an activity they should not have while on their medication.

The primary languages of survey respondents included Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Russian and several other languages.

Among those groups, the researchers found the problem was particularly severe in the Spanish-speaking community, where more than half of the Spanish-speaking respondents said they had difficulty understanding the proper use of prescription drugs.

Furthermore, 10% of those respondents said they did not know how much of a drug to take. Nine percent said they did not understand the terms “before, with or after meals.”

“Clearly this is a serious problem,” TransPerfect Translations president and chief executive officer Liz Elting remarks. “One word could be deadly. Take, for example, the English word ‘once’ on a prescription that indicates taking a drug once a day. In Spanish ‘once’ means eleven.”

At the other end of the spectrum the survey finds Chinese-speaking patients had the fewest problems understanding their medications.

Whereas 52% of Russian speakers and 57% of Spanish speakers said they have found prescription drugs “impossible” to fully understand because of language difficulties, only 19% of Indian descent and 8% of Chinese speakers gave that response.

Some drug chains have taken steps to alleviate the problem from the pharmacy end of the system.

Walgreen Co., for example, prints prescription labels in one of eight languages - English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Polish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Russian.

Still, TransPerfect Translations’ Elting says, the medical community has not kept pace.

“Problems come from the translators or interpreters the medical community uses - if they use them at all,” she asserts. “When translating, you must be an expert in the language and in the subject matter - in this case in the field of medicine.”

“You simply can’t use a bright language student or doctor’s assistant who may be bilingual. If you do, you are putting the patient at risk.”

About TransPerfect
With revenue of over $250 million, TransPerfect is the largest privately held language services provider in the world. From offices in 66 cities on 5 continents, TransPerfect offers a full range of services in over 100 languages to multinationals worldwide. With a global network of over 4,000 linguists and subject-area specialists, TransPerfect is the largest translation company to be fully ISO 9001:2008 and EN 15038:2006 certified. TransPerfect is headquartered in New York and has regional headquarters in London and Hong Kong. For more information, please visit our website at

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