Lost in translation: medicine misunderstandings

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 said.


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 www.nps.org.au/consumers/publications/medicines_talk