Multilingual drug labels required?


Patients should decide how a pharmacy can best communicate with patients. And they can use a very American way to make their feelings known.

Ken BakerWhen I read Mark Lowery’s article “Should states require bilingual drug labels?” [July 31;] and the follow-up article, which included comments from pharmacists and pharmacy technicians across the country [ “Bilingual drug labels: Pharmacists speak out“; August 11;], I was intrigued by the dual concepts of quality best practices and government mandates.

The article noted that the “California State Board of Pharmacy (CSBOP) is considering new regulations that would require pharmacies throughout the state to provide translated labels on prescription drug bottles.” New York passed a similar rule last year. 

Such a rule, while well-intentioned, may stifle a better way to accomplish the purpose.  Such regulations will undoubtably have some benefits. However, compliance will be expensive, the rules will be of only marginal value to the majority of patients, and they might may expose pharmacies to legal risks.

Who benefits?

Proponents of the change believe it would make prescription drug use easier for state residents who do not speak English. An estimated 44% of California residents speak a language other than English at home.

In Arizona, ballots are printed in both Spanish and English. That makes sense, but it is of no value for voters whose first language is French or Vietnamese or one of many African languages. 

Voting is not a matter for private business. It is a governmental function, and it is up to government workers to devise the best system to accomplish the goals of government. 


Who decides?

Who is to decide how a pharmacy can best communicate with its patients? The answer is that it is the patients who can best make that decision.

At one pharmacy in Minnesota, the first language on the after-hours’ telephone message is Hmong ( (There are other Hmong-speaking pharmacies in Minnesota, as well.)

No governmental agency dictated to the pharmacy that it hire Hmong speakers or give prescription directions in Hmong. What spoke to the pharmacy was a combination of the American free enterprise system and the patients’ pocketbooks. And Hmong patients from across Minneapolis take their business to that pharmacy and spend their money there.

This pharmacy provides a lesson in how bilingual communications can best be accomplished. Hmong speakers across Minnesota come to this pharmacy because someone told them “Hmong is spoken here.” They find out through word of mouth and through the pharmacy’s own advertisements, among other means.

Communication is the cornerstone

Increasingly, the art of communication is becoming the cornerstone of the practice of pharmacy. Pharmacists have knowledge of drugs and a deep understanding of how they can best be used. They need to use this expertise to help their patients manage medication risks.

The role of the boards of pharmacy is not to dictate in which or in how many languages a pharmacy should communicate. A better role would be to educate the public about which pharmacy offers communication services. On their web pages, boards can post lists of the pharmacies that can communicate in Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, French, or any other language a pharmacy can certify that it offers. The board could also list the pharmacies that communicate only in English. 

Once informed, patients can decide which services are important to them and which they are willing to pay for. That is the American system, doing what it does best. 

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