California May Have Bilingual Prescription Labels in Future [Video]

Californians who do not speak English may get help understanding their medications in the future. On Thursday July 31, the California Board of Pharmacy will be discussing regulations that would make it mandatory for all prescription drug bottles to have labels translated into other languages. Bilingual labels are already happening in Sacramento at Paul Hom Asian Clinic. Danny Tao, the Patient Assistant Director for the clinic, says the prescriptions at his clinic are prescribed in English, Chinese or English/Vietnamese. Tao also says the translations help patients because reading their native languages helps them know exactly how to take the medication.

The topic of translating prescriptions is a battle because some support it while others see flaws with it. Tao says that people have come to his clinic to get prescriptions but do not understand what the instructions say on the label. He says this could cause medical errors such as not taking the correct dose, taking it at the wrong time or not taking it often enough. Any of these errors could cause serious injuries or even death. Chek Lun Wong is one of the many patients that Tao sees who does not understand the directions on his medication bottle. Wong says he does not read the instructions on the bottle because he does not understand them.

Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, the director of the University of California Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities, said that it is not enough for a patient to get an explanation in a language they may not know. Aguilar-Gaxiola said she is aware of the costs for bilingual labels but knows it is more costly not to give the correct directions that patients can understand. Patients who do not understand their medications are at risk, and that risk might require them to get medical treatment at a local emergency room, which is expensive.


Many people do not support the topic because of translation issues. Jon Roth, the chief executive of the California Pharmacists Association, says that pharmacists do not feel comfortable giving medications in a language they do not understand. Roth also says pharmacists will be liable if the translator translated the instructions incorrectly. According to Virginia Herold, the executive officer for the California Board of Pharmacy, in the future translated labels would require larger bottles, which patients will not like. Herold said that people will take the pills out of the bottle and place them in something else, which defeats the purpose of the translated directions. Brian Warren, who is part of the California Pharmacists Association, says that malpractice insurance would increase, which can impact consumers by raising their insurance premiums.

The meeting on July 31 is not the first time pharmacists brought up this topic. In February of 2013, Senate Bill 204, which the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network supported, advocated for translations on pill bottles. However, after prescribers and pharmacists did not see eye to eye, members listening to the arguments decided that the translation section would be deleted from the bill so it could be discussed in more depth at a later date.

In the future, people who do not understand English in California may understand their prescriptions on bilingual labels if a conversation during a monthly meeting on July 31 goes well. The conversation will be between a panel of national experts, and then there will be an open discussion. The decision comes with controversy ranging from putting patients who do not understand their medication’s instructions at risk to making pharmacists liable if the instructions are wrong.

By Jordan Bonte

The Washington Post
NBC Bay Area
The Sacremento Bee

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