Patients are expected to follow the doctors orders, but for many immigrants
who cant read or speak English easily, taking your daily medicine means finding
a friend or family member to translate a prescription, or just making an
educated guess. In New York City, a landmark law seeks to dismantle the language
barrier at the pharmacy counter.
The new measure, just approved by the City Council, requires that pharmacies provide full language services to
meet the needs of the citys myriad ethnic neighborhoods. That means counseling
and translations of prescription labels in Spanish, Chinese, Creole, Polish you
get the picture. The law builds on existing civil rights laws, as well as recent legal
settlements that advocacy groups have brokered with large chain pharmacies like
Compared to the convoluted Beltway sausage-fest that is the national
healthcare debate, the city’s bill (which targets major pharmacy chains) seems
pretty simple. But it speaks to the need for truly inclusive medical care, not
only in terms of who is covered, but who is empowered to make informed decisions
about their health.
Although civil rights statutes technically require New York City hospitals
and agencies to provide equal language access, pharmacies have been largely
unregulated. Lawmakers cite a New York Academy of Medicine study showing that while nearly
90 percent of pharmacies regularly serve customers with limited English ability,
most do not translate medicine labels on a daily basis.
Gazette described how a task that many English speakers take for granted presents a dangerous challenge for one immigrant mother:
Catalina Martinez… suffers from gastritis and has a
14-year-old son prone to allergies, forcing her to visit the pharmacy often. A
native of Mexico who has lived in Ridgewood for a decade, Martinez sometimes
stops strangers on the street, hoping to get her prescriptions translated since
the pharmacies she frequents do not provide language assistance. Sometimes, she
said, she will not give her son medication for fear of administering it
"Maybe I have to give him this much medicine, sometimes I have to give less,"
said the 49-year-old. "Sometimes I won’t even give it to my son because I won’t
know how to do it."
The problem inspired a grassroots campaign led by Make the Road New
York and New York Lawyer’s for the Public Interest last year. They
pushed for legislation to obligate pharmacies to not only provide translation
but also to inform patients about the availability of language services, with
penalties for non-compliance. Pharmacies that lack bilingual personnel can use
phone-based translation services.
In an announcement of the City Council vote, Nisha Agarwal, director
of the Health Justice Program at NYLPI, said,
Many pharmacies in New York have been systematically depriving
non-English speakers equal access to prescription medication… This lawthe
first of its kind in the countryprovides an enforcement mechanism that will
adequately punish violating pharmacies for their neglect.
As we’ve noted before, healthcare equity not simply about insurance,
but about making the system conscious of the diverse needs of the communities it serves. The need for the
government to take proactive steps to ensure quality, culturally competent care
is all the more crucial given the socioeconomic disparities that erode the
health of communities of color.
Translating the label of a pill bottle takes just a few minutes, but it could
mean the difference between staying sick and going to work or school the next
morning, or it could save a family a trip to the emergency room, or worseall
possibilities that cumulatively have a major impact on the economy and the
community fabric. But perhaps most importantly, a small thing like translation
gives people who have long been shut out of healthcare institutions a sense of
mutual trust and confidence. That’s not just good health care; it’s a form of