The language of medicines has different accents in multilingual communities

Around 10% of Australians* have household or family members that have trouble getting information about their medicines because English is not their first language.

To tackle this information gap, community pharmacists working in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities around Australia are helping their customers this Be Medicinewise Week (19-25 August) to get to know the language of medicines.

“Language barriers are the most obvious part, but there are cultural differences to deal with as well,” says Veronica Nou, a pharmacist working in Oxley Park in Sydney’s western suburbs.

“People of differing CALD backgrounds may find sensitive topics such as mental or sexual health much harder to discuss. They may be reluctant to question something, admit they do not understand or that they need help at all. These issues, as well as problems understanding medicine information mean I’ve had to intervene with a woman spraying her asthma puffer on her chest instead of inhaling it, a young woman drinking her antifungal cream, and a mother ending up in hospital because she mistakenly was using too many of her antidepressants. She has little to no English and relied on her school age kids to translate for her,” she says.

This Be Medicinewise Week, NPS MedicineWise is working together with pharmacists in CALD communities to help all Australians, including from CALD backgrounds, to get to know the language of medicines and get the most out of them, safely. Pharmacists have many tips to help people to be medicinewise.

“Be patient. Give people time to absorb the information and convert to their own language and ask any questions they may have,” says Curtis Ruhnau, a pharmacist from Blacktown in Sydney’s west – a community where over 150 languages are spoken.

“In our pharmacy, we keep a chart of important common terms in different languages such as ‘take once a day’, ‘take with meals’ and so on,” says Cecilia Yoon, a Korean-speaking pharmacist in Strathfield, NSW.

“We use the Translation and Interpreting Service (TIS) to help us explain information about medicines if we don’t speak the same language as a patient,” says Lemar Nawabi, intern pharmacist at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

This Be Medicinewise Week NPS MedicineWise is asking people to know all the medicines you take and why you take them, understand the instructions of how to take a medicine, check with your health professional before starting a new medicine, and ask if you have any questions.

More information can be found on the Be Medicinewise Week website.

For more information on prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and minerals) from a health professional, call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) for the cost of a local call (calls from mobiles may cost more). Hours of operation are Monday–Friday 9am–5pm AEST (excluding public holidays).

The Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National) provides an immediate phone interpreting service 24 hours a day, every day of the year to non-English speakers (in the majority of cases), regardless of their cultural and linguistic backgrounds (CALD), by calling 131 450.

Medical practitioners can access the Free Interpreting Services to communicate with their CALD patients 24 hours a day, every day of the year by calling TIS National’s Doctors Priority Line on 1300 131 450.

Pharmacies can also access the Free Interpreting Service to provide community pharmacy services and for programs delivered under the 6th Community Pharmacy Agreement by calling 131 450.

More information about TIS National and the Free Interpreting Service can be found on their website

Choosing Wisely Australia® - an initiative of NPS MedicineWise - offers a  5 Questions resource to help people have better conversations with their healthcare provider about any recommended tests, treatments and procedures. They have been translated into 12 languages.

*YouGov Galaxy poll of 1037 adults conducted in July 2019 for NPS MedicineWise.

Community pharmacist and NPS MedicineWise spokespeople are available for media interviews.


Media enquiries

Matthew Harris, NPS MedicineWise media adviser: (02) 8217 9229, 0419 618 365 or [email protected]