New Study Finds Spanish-Translated Medication Labels May Contain Errors

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Most pharmacies provide medication labels in Spanish to aid Spanish-speaking customers in the proper use of their prescriptions for optimal treatment of their condition and to help maintain patient safety. However, a new study has found that the translations are not always complete and may contain hazardous errors.

Iman Sharif MD of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York and a colleague conducted a telephone survey of Bronx pharmacies to determine if they provided Spanish-language medication labels and how they generated those translations. Of the 286 pharmacies contacted, 73% provided translated labels, with most using computer software to do so.

The researchers then evaluated 76 of the computer-generated translations and found that 32 or 43% had incomplete translations and six had misspellings or grammatical errors. The overall error rate for Spanish-translated labels when using a computer software rather than professional interpreters or Spanish-speaking staff was 50%.

"Although pharmacies were likely to provide medicine labels translated into Spanish, the quality of the translations was inconsistent and potentially hazardous. Unless regulations and funding support the technological advances needed to ensure the safety of such labeling, we risk perpetuating health disparities for populations with limited English proficiency," the authors write.

April 1st through the 7th each year is dedicated to Medication Safety. The key messages of the program is how to store, manage, and organize pills, understanding new medications, proper identification of drugs that may look alike or have similar names, and understanding interactions between medications or foods.

Seven Focus Days, one for each day of Medication Safety Week, has a theme to raise awareness for prescription safety:

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April 1: Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet
Start with a clean slate. Discard outdated medicines and old prescriptions. Many drugs lose their potency over time. Store medicines in their original containers and in a cool, dry place. Locate medicines away from children and pets and from those who do not understand.

April 2: Know Your Medicines
Print out a free Medication Record from the Missouri Center for Patient Safety and make a complete list of all your medications, using both the generic and trade names. In addition to prescription meds, also remember to list over-the-counter medicines, birth control pills and patches and dietary or herbal supplements. Know how to identify pills and know what they are for – write down color, shape or any other information that will help if you cannot read the name. Know the drug's purpose and why you are taking it. Keep the list updated and keep it with you at all times.

April 3: Read Medicine Labels Carefully
Are you taking what your doctor ordered and the way he ordered it? Note precautionary stickers on the label. Note the route, dose and frequency of your medicines. Keep medicines in their original containers. Pay attention to warnings. Note that some medicines can react with foods. Others have to be taken on an empty stomach. Some lose potency quickly and must be kept in an air-tight container. The effectiveness of many medicines is dependent upon taking them at the correct times. How the medicine is to be taken ––the route–– is also important (i.e. by mouth, through the skin, under the tongue, inhaling, rectal or vaginal suppository, enema or douche). Be careful!

April 4: Dietary Supplements Awareness
Discuss taking a dietary supplement with your doctor or practitioner and your pharmacist before you start it. Herbal medicines and other dietary supplements can react with medicines and have an unknown synergistic effect.

April 5: Organize Your Medicines
Keep an updated record listing all medicines and supplements you are taking at home and at your primary care physician’s office. Use of a medicine organizer box may be helpful, especially for those taking more than one pill several times a day, however, a medicine organizer box requires close monitoring, especially when there is a change in medicines. Also, be aware that use of an organizer box violates the rule of keeping medicines in their original containers. New drugs with time-released action can offer some help with organizing with only once-a-day medicating so ask your doctor about these newer medicines.

April 6: Transitional Care Awareness
A change in medical regimen can be confusing and can place you at increased risk. Be diligent about communication with all healthcare professionals. Make sure you understand your medicines and how you are to take them before leaving the hospital or doctor's office - Ask for written instructions. Be extra cautious whenever there is a change in your medical regimen. Double-check your medicines when picking up a new or refilled prescription. If you are in a hospital or nursing home, make sure the nurse checks your I.D. bracelet before giving you your pills and if a pill doesn't look familiar, ask why. It may be a generic of the same drug you were taking however, if you don't ask, you won't know!

April 7: Better Communication With Health Professionals
Actively seek information from your pharmacist about the pills and the supplements that you are taking. Ask for print-out sheets on each drug. Discuss all risks and benefits with your prescribing practitioner and share information about the medicines and supplements you are already taking top avoid an adverse interaction.

NOTE: The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality also has medication safety resources for consumers in Spanish at http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/espanoix.htm

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