A study released in the current issue of Pediatrics has brought to light an extremely dangerous form of medical malpractice facing a large portion of the U.S. population: inaccurate translations on medicine labels provided to Spanish-speaking patients at pharmacies. According to the study, incomplete translations and mistranslations occur at an alarming rate, even in areas where the Spanish-speaking population is large. These errors, while at times innocuous, have the potential for disastrous consequences. The personal injury lawyers of Passen & Powell are deeply concerned by this troubling news, and stand ready to take action on behalf of those seriously injured or killed by these medical errors.
The study examined prescription labels issued at pharmacies located in the Bronx, New York – an area with a large Spanish-speaking population. There are 316 pharmacies in the study area, and 91% voluntarily participated in the study. Of the participating pharmacies, 71% had a practice of providing medicine labels translated into Spanish for patients who spoke Spanish. Interestingly, independent pharmacies were more likely to have a translation practice than larger pharmacies. While 88% of independent pharmacies practiced Spanish translation, only 57% of hospital pharmacies did so, and a mere 32% of chain pharmacies provided translation.
There were three different methods of translation used by pharmacies participating in the study. By far the most common method of translating medicine labels was the use of a computer program (with three programs representing 70% of the market) – 86% of translating pharmacies used this method. An additional 11% used a lay staff member to translate the labels, and only 3% used a professional interpreter.
Unfortunately, the computer program generates abysmally poor and potentially dangerous translations.
When both incomplete translations and translation mistakes are considered, the translated Spanish labels had an error rate of 50%.
One of the more dangerous problems with these labels was incomplete translations. Such phrases as “dropperfuls,” “apply topically,” “once a day,” “take with food,” and “for 7 days” were not translated into Spanish at all. The implications for safety are profound. First, and most obviously, if a Spanish-speaking patient does not understand any English, then he will be unable to understand the complete instructions on the label. But the problem runs deeper. When these English phrases are surrounded by Spanish, they may be misinterpreted as Spanish words, with frightening results.
For example, English speakers read “once” as meaning one time, so that the untranslated phrase “once a day” means one time per day. But in Spanish, “once” means eleven. A Spanish-speaking patient could thus misread the English phrase “once a day,” when surrounded by both English and Spanish words, as meaning eleven times per day. It does not take much to imagine the consequences should a pharmacy patient take her medicine, or administer medicine to her children, 11 times a day instead of one. It is not difficult to imagine even wrongful death resulting from such an error.
Other types of errors were also present. Simple errors such as misspellings can also create confusing and dangerous labels. The Spanish word “poca,” for example (which means “little”) was used in place of the Spanish word “boca” (which means “mouth”). Although only one letter is in error, “by mouth” and “by little” have two very different meanings.
A 50% error rate in medical labeling is simply unacceptable, particularly with a population and a language which pharmacies are well aware that they will need to service. It is not difficult to imagine the outcry that would follow if any pharmacy provided prescription medicine labels to English-speaking customers which contained errors half of the time – let alone if all pharmacies in a region did so. Our Chicago medical malpractice attorneys urge pharmacies who service Spanish-speaking patients to begin providing accurate, complete medicine labels to those patients.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago personal injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.