Related topics

‘Medical survival English’: Easing the risk for immigrants

October 11, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Miladys Salcedo gave her 85-year-old mother a dangerously high dose of blood pressure medicine _ because she couldn’t understand the label’s English-language instructions.

Salcedo is among millions of immigrants who health experts say risk injury or death because warnings on medicine bottles come only in English.

To remedy that, consumer advocates are starting a national program to teach ``medical survival English″ to immigrants whose native tongues are Russian, Chinese, Spanish and others. They also are workout out ways to put translations on pharmacy shelves.

``It’s absolutely necessary,″ said Claudia McCormack of New York’s Union Settlement Association in East Harlem, which pilot-tested the new ``Read the Label″ class. ``There’s a lot of confusion.″

Salcedo, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1971 but couldn’t read English well until this summer, took the first course. ``My mother wasn’t taking the right amounts (of medicine) because I didn’t know,″ she said. Once she could read the drug’s instructions, ``I said, `Oh, God, this is very important.‴

Comprehending often-baffling medical jargon on prescription and over-the-counter drugs is not easy for the average American. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that $20 billion a year is spent hospitalizing people who took the wrong medicine, the wrong dose or a dangerous mix with other drugs or even some foods.

``Multiply that (confusion) by 10 if you don’t speak English,″ McCormack said.

The FDA is working toward simpler wording in English on medicine bottles, but both the government and drug makers say providing foreign-language translations for medicines is impossible.

The Council on Family Health, a nonprofit group that works to improve drug literacy, contends the lack of non-English instructions put at risk 32 million people who speak English as a second language. So the council developed the ``Read the Label″ program, working with education officials to mail free materials to more than 10,000 English-as-a-second-language teachers nationwide.

The classes offer lesson plans and medical vocabulary translations for speakers of Spanish, French, Creole, Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese.

But the classes are more than simply learning the Chinese translation of ``bronchodilator″.

They also explain how to read a drug label, so patients don’t miss important fine print. Are you pregnant? The lessons say always to check the ``warnings″ section to make sure a drug won’t harm the fetus. Got diabetes? The ``drug interactions″ section will say if that over-the-counter painkiller safely mixes with your regular diabetes drug.

Nobody knows how big a problem translating drug labels is, said Cleo Manuel of the National Consumers League.

Some studies have documented the confusion. Ohio scientists reported in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association last summer that Vietnamese residents of Toledo found financial and language barriers their biggest problems in using pharmacies. The study recommended that pharmacists demonstrate to patients how to use such drugs as eye drops, and that they track down foreign-language health brochures to offer customers.

Health experts say doctors often explain to immigrant patients how to use prescription medicine. This month the consumers league is mailing out Spanish translations of its popular pamphlets that explain, in layman’s terms, how to use six categories of popular over-the-counter remedies.

The brochures offer critical advice that the consumer group says many people do not know, regardless of their language. Never give aspirin to children who have flu or chicken pox, the pamphlets say. Never take painkillers with alcohol. Be careful when driving after using cough and cold medicines, because they can make you sleepy.

No U.S. company can routinely translate its drug labels, said Meg Grattan of the Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Association. So the association sponsored the Spanish consumer pamphlets, she said, ``taking rifle shots at different demographic groups.″

Update hourly