Chicago Tribune: Spanish Prescription Drug Labels Can Be Dangerous

A recent Julie’s Health Club article, written by Julie Deardorff, appeared in the Chicago Tribune this month with a strong and scary message: translations into Spanish regarding prescriptions drugs can be unclear, confusing, dangerous, and even deadly.

This new and shocking information about the safety hazards of prescription drug Spanish translation was recently published in the scholarly journal Pediatrics. All too often, pharmaceutical companies use computers, not trained translators, to translate their warning labels and instructions from English into Spanish. The terrifying result? The overall error rate for computer translations is 50 percent. The mistakes include misspellings, “Spanglish,” and just plain wrong translations.

The study included an analysis of 76 medications

Lead author of the study, Dr. Iman Sharif, chief of the division of general pediatrics at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children, agrees that the results are scary. While some mistranslations told patients to take the drug 11 times instead of once, some words, such as “take with juice or food” were not translated into Spanish at all. Instead of translating the sentence as a whole, as a person would do, computers translate the drug instruction one word at a time – often leaving Spanish-speaking patients with a collection of gibberish and a chance of taking the drug in an inappropriate or dangerous way.

Even worse, a Northwestern study found that even in states with large Spanish-speaking populations, only 43 percent of prescription drug instructions were translated at all. For now, Sharif suggests that Spanish-speaking patients talk to a Spanish-speaking doctor or pharmacist before they try to decipher prescription drug labels and warnings on their own.
James R. Keller
Connect with me
Partner at Keller & Keller