Lost In Translation: Medicine Misunderstandings Lead To Further Health Problems

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20th October 2010, 01:01pm - Views: 1052

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20 October 2010

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Lost in translation: medicine misunderstandings lead to further health problems

Health information can be difficult for anyone without a medical degree to understand, but for people with

English as a second language it can be even more challenging – and have significant consequences.

The latest edition of MedicinesTalk, published by NPS, an independent organisation that enables people to

be medicinewise, includes useful information for health professionals and people caring for anyone from a

culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background. 

“A quarter of all Australians were born overseas, many in countries with different languages, cultures and

beliefs about health and medicines,” NPS CEO, Dr Lynn Weekes said.

“This can affect how they understand health information and medicines, for example thinking the colour of a

tablet symbolises its strength, or not regarding herbal remedies as medicines.”

Health professionals need to be aware many people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

may not think it’s appropriate to ask a doctor or pharmacist questions or to seek clarification. They may not

have access to translated information or be able to read the language they speak.

“These language difficulties are often exacerbated because they don’t know what questions to ask. Many

also come from cultures where asking questions of health professionals is seen as disrespectful,” Dr Weekes


As a result, people often don’t understand what their medicines are for, how and when to take them, and for

how long to take them. Also, many do not know about the side effects of their medicines, and what to do if

they experience one.

“The problem is not confined to those with little or no English. Those with conversational English often have

difficulties understanding complex medical explanations and instructions, particularly when they are unwell or

in a stressful situation,” Dr Weekes said.

Other factors that may impact how people use medicines include periods of fasting, when people may stop

their medicines temporarily or take them at irregular times. This can cause problems for people with diabetes

and other conditions where regular timing of their medicines is important. Others may continue to take their

medicines but take them without food, which may also cause problems.

Sharing is also a strong feature of many communities and sharing medicines may be seen as no different to

sharing food, clothes and other things. However, people may not be aware that a medicine that works for

one person may not work for another, and may even be harmful.

“If you are providing health care to someone from a CALD background or acting as their carer, be aware of

these factors that can impact how people take their medicine and interpret health information. Where

possible ask them to repeat back to you what they understand, and point them in the direction of translated

information sources,” Dr Weekes said.  

For verbal translation assistance call the Translating and Interpreting Service on 131 450.

To read the full MedicinesTalk article and others in this edition go to


Media enquiries to Katie Butt, NPS Media Adviser, 02 8217 8667 or kbutt@nps.org.au 

Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, 

NPS enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests. 

We are funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.

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