Irania, an Ecuadoran-born woman (she did not give her last name), suffers from a long list of ailments.
She takes 19 different medications daily for conditions such as asthma, depression and gastritis. And she has to do it strictly following her doctor’s orders.
The trouble is that the information Irania gets from her pharmacy is only in English, a language she has limited knowledge of.
That means that many times she ends up guessing what the correct dosages are, how should they be taken and even if some of her medications could get her sick if taken together. And then pray for the best.
She has asked several times at the pharmacy if they have information in Spanish or someone who can tell her how to take the drugs. “But they always say no,” Irania said.
Her case is not unique. Thousands of New Yorkers with limited English play a daily game of Russian roulette, when trying to take their drugs following the doctor’s orders.
According to Theo Oshiro, senior advocate for health care at Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based grass-roots community organization, many people are taking their drugs the wrong way or abstaining from taking them because they feel insecure about how to do it.
“It should not be that way. The health of non-English speaking community people is being put at risk,” Oshiro said. “The law mandates that all patients – not only English-speaking ones – be given information they understand.”
This guessing game has Brooklyn resident Carmen Savignon, 51, a Dominican immigrant, very worried about her mother.
Savignon knows some English, but her mother, who is 75 and lives in Queens by herself, does not. She cannot read the labels.
“My mother has a bad heart and recently, after coming out of the hospital, her doctor reduced the dosage of her medication from two capsules daily to one,” Savignon said.
But because the label was in English and the pharmacy did not tell her about the change, Savignon’s mother did not know about the new dosage.
“I went to visit her and saw that she was still taking two capsules. She could have died,” Savignon said. “If the label had been in Spanish, she could have read it without any problem.”
The problem is widespread. A recent study by the New York Academy of Medicine found that two-thirds of the city’s pharmacies do not provide translations.
With that in mind, Make the Road by Walking organized a protest on Tuesday that attracted dozens of community people.
The protesters gathered in front of the Duane Reade store located at 5411 Myrtle Ave., Brooklyn, to demand that pharmacies – not only Duane Reade – follow the laws and stop discriminating against limited English-proficient community members.
“Duane Reade is committed to serving all New Yorkers and providing the medical information necessary for the safe and effective use of all our prescription drugs,” the company said in a written statement. “Duane Reade currently provides Spanish labels in certain stores upon request and has over 75 Spanish-speaking pharmacists. Duane Reade is also working to expand our capabilities to better serve the entire New York community.”
In fact, there are federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws that require pharmacies to provide interpreters and translators. The intent of the laws is to ensure equal access to their services and promote public health.
According to Andrew Friedman, Make the Road by Walking executive director, he is considering legal action to ensure that the laws are enforced.
Taking medication should never be a guessing game.