Like physicians, pharmacies play an important role in empowering patients to take charge of their health.

Unfortunately, language barriers often make it more difficult for non-English speaking customers to ask important questions about their medication, take it as directed, and be aware of potential side effects.

As pharmacies serve increasingly diverse populations, language access is becoming more important than ever.

The Center for Immigration Studies reports that one in five Americans (65 million people) speaks a language other than English at home. Just over 40 percent of these individuals are considered limited English proficient (LEP), meaning they speak English “less than very well” and are entitled to assistance. This LEP group constitutes about 9 percent of the total U.S. population.

Language barriers can pose serious health risks to LEP customers. Research has shown that those with little knowledge of English often do not have a good understanding of their medication instructions.

Here are a few ways language access can help pharmacists overcome these language barriers.

Three Ways Language Access Benefits Pharmacies

Improving Health Literacy

Studies say that LEP individuals are much more likely than those who are English-proficient to report problems understanding a medical situation. Being able to understand a pharmacist’s instructions is a basic requirement for health literacy.

A pharmacy’s ability to translate labels and instructions into multiple languages ensures customers will understand them.

Translation services can also apply to patient instructions, warnings, package inserts, signage, and consumer medication information leaflets.

As for face-to-face interaction, some pharmacies have qualified bilingual staff who can serve as interpreters at the pharmacy. Others may use professional over-the-phone interpreter services or video remote interpreting to bridge language gaps.

Improving Customer Relationships

When someone is sick or hurting, it is imperative that they fully understand their prescription. Having on-demand interpretation available can also help customers fill their prescriptions quickly and get their questions answered.

Follow-up phone calls, emails, and texts can also include in-language communication.

Complying with Regulations

Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. Any pharmacy that delivers services while receiving federal funds (for example, Medicare and Medicaid) has to provide meaningful access to its services regardless of national origin. 

In practical terms, this means that pharmacies must provide LEP customers with access to a qualified interpreter and translated prescription labels and instructions.

Most pharmacies have signage about customer rights under Section 1557. These should be translated into languages that are prominent in the region.

Pharmacies are also required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 by ensuring individuals with disabilities, such as those who are deaf and hard of hearing, are able to access needed services by means of “auxiliary aids and services.” According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), examples of auxiliary aids and services for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals include qualified on-site interpreters or high-quality video remote interpreting (VRI) services.

Several states also have language access requirements aimed specifically at pharmacies. For example, New York passed the SafeRx Pharmacy Translation Regulations, which require pharmacies to “provide free, competent oral interpretation services and translation services of prescription medication labels, warning labels and other written material to each LEP individual filling a prescription at such covered pharmacy.”

Family Members Are Not Qualified Interpreters

Children and other family members may be the only fluent English speakers in certain families. The Department of Justice LEP Guidance makes clear that these family members must not be relied upon to serve as interpreters and translators except as a last resort.

Instead, to help overcome language barriers, it is crucial that pharmacies have professional interpretation services available and that staff are trained on how to access them when needed.

Most Bilingual Employees Are Not Interpreters

Pharmacies frequently rely on bilingual employees to provide language coverage. Pharmacies should know that being bilingual does not necessarily make someone an interpreter or translator. In fact, most bilinguals fail to meet the federal standard for “qualified interpreter.”

Professional, qualified interpreters have a level of fluency that far out-distances that of the average bilingual individual. They’re trained to provide not just a basic explanation of what someone is saying but a complete and accurate interpretation of what the individual means.

Medical interpreters, who specialize in language barriers in healthcare settings, take this one step further. They are trained to handle highly specialized interpreting situations requiring complex vocabulary with nuanced meanings that the average bilingual individual would never need to know. 

If a pharmacy does have qualified bilingual employees, they typically cover one or two languages, and they are likely not available during all hours of operation.

LanguageLine Can Help

Fortunately, tools exist that allow pharmacists to access interpretation services on demand via phone or video. At the touch of a button, pharmacists can reach medically qualified interpreters in hundreds of languages, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

LanguageLine Solutions offers a variety of innovative solutions to help pharmacies meet patient needs, including round-the-clock, on-demand interpreting with qualified, medically trained interpreters in more than 240 languages. We also provide translation and localization, as well as testing and training of bilingual staff and in-house interpreters.

Mount Sinai Case Study