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Will California Adopt Bilingual Medication Labels?

Aug 2014

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Controversy is mounting in California over whether the state should adopt bilingual drug labels. The California Board of Pharmacy have been discussing the issue since Thursday, July 31st, and have yet to reach a verdict. So, what’s the problem and what’s the solution?

The Multilingual State

California has more immigrants than any other state – an estimated 10 million. In fact, a 2011 census shows that 27% of California’s population was born in another country and 44% will speak a language other than English at home. Of course not every immigrant will have problems with English, but many will. And lest we forget, there is a massive difference between speaking a language and reading it. So, as it stands, there are potentially millions of people receiving medicine without any idea of when and how to take it.

Around half of California’s immigrants come from Latin America, mainly Mexico, but increasingly the majority of immigrants are coming from Asia. Between 2007 and 2011, 53% of immigrants came from Asian countries and only 31% from Latin American countries.

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To aid these recent Asian immigrants, the Paul Hom Asian Clinic in Sacramento prints bilingual labels in Chinese and Vietnamese. The Patient Assistant Director, Danny Tao, claims that over half his patients speak very little English. Previously, Tao explains, they would ‘go pick (the medication) up and we don’t know if they’re taking it or not – or if they know how to take it’. Now, however, ‘they know exactly how to take the medication, because it’s in their own language’.

Label Libel

Bilingual labels seem like a reasonable solution to a genuine problem, so why are Californian pharmacies not rushing to adopt it? Well, very simply pharmacists would not be able to verify the information on the labels, if they don’t understand the language it is written in. For California’s needs most labels would, at the very least, have to be available in Spanish, Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. That would require a very multicultural and polylingual pharmacy!


Brian Warren, of the California Pharmacists Association, puts it this way: ‘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’. With America’s privatised healthcare system this spells lawsuits and more expensive malpractice insurance. That explains the pushback as much as any concern for patients.

California’s pharmacy board has, however, already issued translations of very simple instructions on its website; and other states, like New York, have already adopted similar legislation. This will be one to watch closely.

…Meanwhile, in Britain, we have this nifty online app that allows you to print out a range of instructions in 40 different languages:

Global Language Services has a history of working with the NHS and hire only the most qualified medical translators. If you need bilingual labels, contact us!

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