Nearly One in Ten Children Have Been Given Medication Incorrectly Due to Poor Translation


Nearly One in Ten Children Have Been Given Medication Incorrectly Due to Poor Translation

April 2, 2003 - According to a recent survey of 592 people in some of the fastest growing communities in the United States who speak English as a second language (ESL), nearly one in 10 children are given prescription medication incorrectly. Parents who don't fully understand the instructions because of translation difficulties are responsible for giving these children medicines incorrectly. Almost as astonishing, 33% of the overall respondents said they have left their doctor's office without being clear about their medications because of a language barrier.

TransPerfect Translations, one of the world's leading translation companies, conducted this survey to determine how serious the problem of having difficulty with prescription medications was for people who were foreigners and not totally bi-lingual. TransPerfect Translations feels that the medical community needs help in finding ways to improve upon the language problems that doctors and pharmacists face with many ESL patients.

Respondents seemed reluctant to make sure they understood their prescriptions with 28% guessing at the proper dosage because they were not sure what their prescription said. Additionally, because they didn't totally understand that there are things that should not be done when taking drugs, 17% performed an activity they shouldn't have while on their medication.

The survey's respondents included people who spoke English as a second language, a large number of which were native Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and Russian speakers.

The effects on the Spanish-speaking community are almost epidemic in proportion to other groups. Consider that over half of the Spanish-speaking participants said they had difficulty understanding the proper use of a prescription drug. Perhaps most dangerously it comes from the misunderstanding of the proper dosage, with 10% of the Spanish respondents saying they didn't know how much to take; and 9% saying they didn't fully understand the phrase "before, with or after meals."

Liz Elting, President and CEO of TransPerfect Translations says, "Clearly, this is a very serious problem. I have seen terrible and even life-threatening mistakes. One woman who was surveyed told us her mother had passed away because of improper use of drugs because of a language barrier. 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."

Chinese-speaking respondents had the fewest problems understanding their medications, while Russian- and Spanish-speaking respondents had the most difficulty. For example, 52% of the Russian-speaking participants and 57% of the Spanish-speaking participants said they have found prescription drugs "impossible" to fully understand because of language difficulties. However, only 19% of the participants of Indian descent and 8% of Chinese-speaking participants responded the same way.

To demonstrate how serious this problem is an astounding 47% of Spanish speakers said that they had bad prescription experiences because they were unable to fully translate the instructions. Consider that 21% of Russian speakers said there was a term on their medication that consistently confused them due to language difficulties.

An amusing yet very serious statistic showed that 11% of Russian-speaking respondents said that they had trouble understanding the instructions for Zocor (cholesterol medication) while only 1% misunderstood the instructions for Viagra (a drug to help sexual dysfunction).

Elting continues, "In addition, problems come from the translators or interpreters the medical community uses, if they use them at all. When translating, you must be an expert not only in the language but also in the subject matter, in this case in the field of medicine. We do work for some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world translating inserts, which are included with prescription medicines, and, needless to say, the inserts must be perfect. The translators we use are thoroughly tested for their language knowledge, their pharmaceutical expertise, and their accuracy. You can't simply use a bright language student or doctor's assistant who may be bilingual-if you do, you are putting the patient at risk."

  • 33% of all respondents surveyed have left the doctor's office without being fully clear about their medication.
  • Overall, 17% have performed an activity that they shouldn't have while on their medication.
  • 11% of Russian-speaking respondents said that they had trouble understanding the instructions for Zocor while only 1% misunderstood the instructions for Viagra.
  • Over half of the Spanish-speaking respondents found it "impossible" to fully understand their prescription drugs because of language difficulties.
  • 44% of Spanish-speaking participants said they have at one time taken the wrong dosage because they had trouble translating the instructions into Spanish, while only 15% of Russian-speaking participants said they have taken the wrong dosage.
  • And 28% of those overall surveyed have guessed at the proper dosage to take because they weren't sure what it said.
  • 16% of Hindi-speaking participants said there was a term that was unclear on their medication due to their inability to fully translate the instructions from English.
  • Over half of Spanish-speaking respondents say there is an unclear term on their prescription drug. 10% of those say it was dosage that confused them the most, while 6% said they didn't understand the medical terminology that was used.
  • 47% of Spanish-speaking patients have described a bad prescription experience they have encountered because of a language barrier problem. Of that, 9% had trouble determining the meaning of "before, with or after their meals."
  • 12% of Hindi-speaking participants admitted they had difficulty with the pharmacist's explanation of their prescription drug because of the language barrier.
  • 12% of Spanish-speaking participants surveyed said they drank alcohol while on their medication because they didn't fully understand the instructions and 8% drove a car when they shouldn't have been operating heavy machinery.
  • 29% of Spanish-speaking participants know of an elderly relative that has taken their medication improperly because they didn't understand the instructions.
The Top Five Bad Experiences that happened to Spanish-speaking patients were:
  • Overdose
  • Allergic reaction
  • Felt sick
  • Automobile accident
  • Took drugs improperly
The Top Five Bad Experiences that happened to Russian-speaking patients were:
  • Suffered side effects
  • Overdose
  • Consumed dairy products when they shouldn't have
  • Allergic reaction
  • Felt sick

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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