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Translated Drug Labels Are Often Wrong

The directions on your pill bottle could put your health at risk. Here's how to protect yourself.

Translated drug labels often wrong

Ann E. Cutting

If your pharmacist uses translation software and isn't bilingual, the directions on your pill bottle could be dead wrong.

En español | Fifty percent of all prescription labels translated from English to Spanish are wrong or incomplete, according to a recent study, with potentially hazardous results.

For instance, the word "once," as in "take once a day,"means "one time" in English, but "11" in Spanish.

"Orally," por la boca, was confused with por la poca, "by the little."

Phrases such as "take with food" and "for 7 days" were dropped entirely.

In a recent interview, Walkiris Fernandez Raineri, RPh, a Chicago-area bilingual pharmacist with 24 years' experience, spoke about translation errors and offered tips for consumers.

Q: How does your pharmacy handle the translation of prescriptions?

A: Our pharmacy has a computer software program that translates the directions, but it has the information printed in Spanish and in English so that the pharmacist knows what's prescribed. That's one of the safeguards. Mistakes can occur when it's dispensed at the drive-thru window if the pharmacist doesn't go through the instructions with the patient. I have an advantage because I speak Spanish, so I know what I'm dispensing.

Q: Did you ever find any mistakes or misinterpretations in the translations?

A: I can't think of anything specifically, but these programs translate literally — they don't translate exactly the way the prescription should be worded in Spanish for someone to understand. If the patient doesn't speak English, and the professional doesn't speak Spanish, and you're translating it through this computer program, it's tough. There's still that human error there that you really can't correct if you don't speak the language.

Q: If a person's English is not up to par and he or she needs to have a prescription translated, what precautions should be taken?

A: Before you get to the pharmacy, ask your doctor about the medicine prescribed. Most of the time, when patients come to the pharmacy they have no idea what's been prescribed to them. The doctor just hands them the prescription and says, "Get this filled." Patients should make sure they understand what they're being given and why. If you get your medicine from a pharmacist who doesn't speak Spanish, ask for one who does. Patients can also call the pharmacy anytime and ask questions if they have any doubts.