The Law Authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting Requires Prescription Labels to be Available in Six Languages

Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) that will help 6.5 million Californians with limited English proficiency better understand their medications. AB 1073 was introduced in February 2015, and requires pharmacists and health care providers to distribute standardized translations of drug information in addition to the phone translations that are currently available.

Simple written instructions are now required to be available in at least five languages to anyone picking up a prescription in the state of California. Medication instructions are now available in Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Korean, which are the five most commonly spoken languages in the state after English. Many commercial pharmacies have already provided customers with translations, including Walgreens and CVS, which are able to translate prescription labels into 15 languages and provide verbal instructions in 150 languages.

The California State Board of Pharmacy, along with The California Endowment, funded a project with national patient literacy researchers to develop and vet translations of 15 standardized directions that are most commonly found on prescription pill bottles (Here is an example of the 15 instructions and the translations into Spanish).

Assemblyman Ting said that a pharmacy’s services play a critical role in modern medicine and that death or medical complications should not be caused by a lack of language skills. He added that “due to the language diversity in the state of California, translations of prescription information are absolutely necessary.” However, New York is the only other state in the country where a similar law is already in effect. 

California is the most linguistically diverse state in the United States with 207 languages spoken state-wide, and San Francisco is one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the state. On the 2010 census, over 6.5 million residents in California indicated that they did not speak English at a level deemed “very well.” Approximately 36 percent of San Francisco’s 825,863 residents are immigrants, according to the Census Bureau in 2013. 45 percent of San Franciscans over the age of five speak a language other than English at home, with the largest language groups being Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog and Russian. Thirteen percent of San Francisco households remain “linguistically isolated,” with no one over the age of 14 indicating that they speak English “well” or “very well.” It is important that social services such as riding public transit, voting and picking up medications be translated for those who are linguistically isolated, or they will not be able to use such services and risk falling behind and becoming further isolated.

This law is a great example of how lawmakers like Phil Ting address the healthcare needs of non English speakers in California. As of the most recent 2015 election, California ballots were printed in Spanish, Chinese and Filipino in addition to English and SFMTA is also getting on board with accommodating a language diverse city through the use of multi-lingual advertising and customer service information. Awareness of the steps we have to take to accommodate the diverse population in California has brought about progressive change, and this law will help to keep turning awareness into meaningful action for California families.