Medication Quick Search
My Medicine List Your Hospital Pharmacist Medication Tips and Tools

How Language Barriers Can Affect Safe Medication Use

Elaine Lindsay TwedtPeople who speak English as a second language often find life in the U.S. to be confusing, as they struggle to understand both the written and spoken word. But this lack of familiarity with English can be dangerous when it comes to reading a prescription label.

Let me give you an example of what can happen: At a pharmacy in California, two different patients with the same Vietnamese name each dropped off a prescription.

With the exception of an accent mark above one of the first names, the names on the orders were exactly alike. The prescriptions were for amoxicillin (an antibiotic for infection) and for Premarin® (a hormone supplement for women).

When the pharmacist handed out the filled prescriptions, he noticed the same names. So, he asked each patient if the name of the prescribing doctor and the name of the medication were correct. Each patient verified that the medication they received was the right one.

An hour later, a 13-year-old boy came back to the pharmacy and told the pharmacist that “this isn't my mom's medicine.” When the pharmacist asked the boy why his mother had said "yes" earlier when the pharmacist tried to verify the drug and doctor's name, the boy said that his mother was afraid to speak English because she wasn’t very skilled yet at the language.

So, if you know or love someone who speaks English as a second language, encourage them to ask questions if something doesn’t seem right with their medication. Perhaps step in and double check their prescriptions to ensure that they received the proper medicine.

And let them know that pharmacists are on their side—that they shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask questions or admit that they don’t speak perfect English. Pharmacists are here to make sure that you receive the right medication for your condition.

By Elaine Lindsay Twedt, Pharm.D., BCPS, CACP, AE-C; Clinical Pharmacy Specialist, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Orangeburg, S.C.