Multilingualism in the dispensary

In 2014, there was an incident – which seems to have been blown out of all proportion by the media – in which the dispensing of a prescription written in Welsh was delayed because the pharmacist, evidently not a Welsh-speaker, could not understand it.

Language is not specified as a requirement for a valid prescription, but as a pharmacist, one should never, ever, dispense or check a prescription that one does not fully understand. It’s a pharmacist’s duty to protect the patient by making sure that the prescription is correct – which one can’t do if one can’t understand it. A pharmacist is also held legally responsible for their part in making sure that what the patient gets is the right thing (and that’s the right thing clinically, not just whatever the prescriber ordered), so dispensing without understanding is a bad idea on all fronts.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society therefore advises that pharmacists either use translation services, or “informal networks” – presumably the latter means the technician who speaks Welsh. Development of a “Welsh Toolkit” with useful phrases for healthcare has been suggested, but as far as I can tell, this hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, if you encounter Welsh prescriptions, presumably your patients also speak Welsh. Being able to speak even a few words of Welsh is probably a good idea – even if your language skills are limited to bore da and diolch. Most people appreciate it when someone attempts to speak their language – even if they’re bad at it. It’s not even about communicating useful information: it’s about being polite. If you live or work in Wales, especially in an area where there are a lot of Welsh speakers, learning some of the language is a way to show that your patients matter to you enough for you to make that extra effort to speak their language, instead of expecting them to speak yours. If you do acquire enough of a language to be useful, rather than simply polite, that’s even better.

Fortunately for the English-speaker in Wales who wishes to learn some basic Welsh, there is now a free internet-based course. Duolingo has just released its Welsh for English Speakers course in beta. Anyone can register for a free Duolingo account and start learning. I shouldn’t think they have the translation for “Your prescription is completely illegible in any language” or “Your doctor has prescribed a medicine that was discontinued in 1972” but by the end of it, you’ll have learned enough Welsh to make a good stab at it.

Of course, since we’re a multicultural, multilingual society, Welsh isn’t the only non-English language a healthcare professional might find it useful to learn: there are nearly as many Polish-speakers in the UK as there are Welsh-speakers. Fortunately, Duolingo has a Polish for English-Speakers course too.


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