4 Helpful Tips For Breaking Down Language Barriers in Pharmacy

August 10, 2023

As dedicated pharmacists, our primary mission is to provide exceptional patient care to all individuals who rely on our expertise. However, in our diverse communities, language barriers can sometimes pose challenges in effectively communicating with our patients. In fact, 20% of all participants in a study reported that they did not seek health services when they were available due to fear of not understanding or being understood.1 This fear is a genuine concern, as effective communication is at the heart of quality healthcare.

Using trusted friends or family members of the patient as interpreters can be one approach to bridge the language gap. This option can be the fastest; however, friends or family members may not possess the specialized language interpretation skills required in medical settings, nor impartiality to always relay all relevant information. These gaps may lead to misunderstandings that can negatively impact patient safety and care. In this blog post, we'll explore the essential subject of breaking down language barriers in the pharmacy, and discover other effective communication strategies that can enhance patient care. 

Multilingual Staff: Bridging the Communication Gap

If you are situated in a diverse community, having a multilingual pharmacy staff can enhance the ability of your team to communicate effectively with patients. Engaging with others in their preferred language fosters trust and understanding, leading to improved patient satisfaction and better health outcomes. However, hiring staff that speak the predominant language(s) spoken in your community may not always be feasible or the only solution. This is why it is important to embrace other tools that are easy to adopt and effective for a variety of languages. 

Harnessing Technology: Embracing the Digital Age

Leveraging technology can be beneficial in overcoming language barriers. Pharmacists can use translation apps or websites to communicate with patients in their preferred language. These technological solutions facilitate real-time communication and provide translations, helping to smoothen interactions and improve patient experiences. 

Here are 3 examples of medical translation apps/websites that are accessible on both iPhones and Androids. The apps listed here provide the users an opportunity to type and listen to the translation in their preferred language. While none can guarantee 100% accuracy, all offer free access with a wide array of languages and features. There are some differences between these three translational services that can be considered:

1. Google Translate (app/website) → Google Translate remains a cost-effective option and supports over 100 languages. The app also has the ability to provide voice translation, which allows users to talk instead of type to get their translation. Furthermore, Google Translate also offers the ability for users to upload images (.jpg, .jpeg, or .png.) or documents (.docx, .pdf, .pptx, or .xlsx) and have text translated to their desired language. 

2. iTranslate (app/website)→ iTranslate gives access to 42 language options. Users can also upgrade to a Pro version, which costs $5.99/month or $49.99/year and gives access to over 100 languages, voice translation, and other translation features. With their camera translation feature, users can snap a picture of text and have it translated into the language they want. Plus, the offline translation option lets users utilize the app without an internet connection.

3. Systran (website) → Although Systran doesn't offer a mobile app, you can easily access it using any web browser on your device. It offers unlimited text translation services for 16 languages. You can also translate up to 3 files (.pdf, .docx, .ppt) monthly for free. Their Pro version costs $15.49/month and offers you access to 50 available languages. This version offers translation of more than 3 files with more characters and in multiple file formats (PDF, Microsoft Word (.docx), PowerPoint (.pptx), Excel (.xlsx), html, jpg, jpeg, png, zip). Users also have the option to select a particular field of specialized terminology, like healthcare, for translating text. This helps ensure more accurate translations. 

Multilingual Written Materials: Empowering Patient Understanding

Creating multilingual written materials, such as medication labels, prescription instructions, and patient education resources, can facilitate patient understanding. A study that looked at language barriers in healthcare stated that 41.8% of the participants had trouble understanding the label on their medication when it was not in their native language. Clear and accurate instructions are vital to ensure patients take their medication as prescribed. Lexicomp offers an excellent option in its “Patient Education” tab where users can change the language and have the opportunity to print the patient education section in the patient’s desired language. Furthermore, other organizations such as Diabetes Canada, CAMH, and SickKids AboutKidsHealth also offer translated patient resources. However, some of these organizations may charge for some of the material of interest. Translating important information into various languages ensures that patients can read and comprehend instructions associated with their medications. 

Visual Aids, Gestures, and Pictograms: A Universal Language

Supplementing verbal communication with visual aids and pictograms can be helpful for patients with limited language proficiency. Using pictures or diagrams to explain the services the pharmacy provides and medication administration techniques can enhance comprehension. Examples include the step-by-step picture instructions found in monographs for devices such as inhalers, injectables, and sprays. Furthermore, affirmative gestures such as a nod for agreement or a thumbs-up for approval have universal meanings across cultures. Pharmacists can use hand gestures or demo devices to demonstrate how the patient should take their medications properly or follow specific medication administration techniques. Leveraging these communication methods enables easier and transparent interactions, reducing the need to solely depend on verbal communication. 

In conclusion, pharmacists can be committed to breaking down language barriers in the pursuit of providing exceptional patient care. Through initiatives such as hiring bilingual staff, using translation apps or websites, adapting patient education handouts to their language, and employing visual aids, we can foster a healthcare environment that is inclusive and compassionate. If you and your pharmacy team are looking for ways to implement these solutions into your pharmacy, visit us at MedEssist to learn about our customizable pharmacy website option that offers translation in different languages such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. As we work together to break language barriers in the pharmacy, we embark on a journey of growth and strive to create a profound impact in the lives of our patients.


  1. Al Shamsi, Hilal, et al. "Implications of language barriers for healthcare: a systematic review." Oman medical journal 35.2 (2020): e122.
  2. Goldin-Meadow, Susan, and Martha Wagner Alibali. "Gesture's role in speaking, learning, and creating language." Annual review of psychology 64 (2013): 257-283.
  3. iTranslate. (2023). “iTranslate home page”. Retrieved from https://itranslate.com/
  4. Schwappach, David LB, Carla Meyer Massetti, and Katrin Gehring. "Communication barriers in counselling foreign-language patients in public pharmacies: threats to patient safety?." International journal of clinical pharmacy 34 (2012): 765-772.
  5. SysTranSoft. (2023). Systran Beyond Language. Retrieved from https://www.systransoft.com/lp/free-online-translation/.
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