Medicine in your mother tongue: Pharma Dynamics’ isiZulu leaflets redefine healthcare in South Africa

It promotes inclusivity and helps bridge language barriers, making healthcare more accessible to these communities. Picture: Pina Messina /Pexels

It promotes inclusivity and helps bridge language barriers, making healthcare more accessible to these communities. Picture: Pina Messina /Pexels

Published Jan 29, 2024

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In a groundbreaking move by a South African pharmaceutical company, patients who speak isiZulu will now be able to read about their medicines in their own language. Pharma Dynamics has become the first company in the country to offer medicine information in isiZulu.

According to Nicole Jennings, a spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, this effort is all about respecting people's rights to healthcare, something the Constitution takes very seriously.

“Everyone should be able to understand the information that comes with their medicine. It's not just about following a doctor's advice,” Jennings explained. “These medicine leaflets provide essential guidance so people can use their medicine safely and correctly.”

“We have lots of people who speak isiZulu at home, and they should be able to read about their medication in their own language,” she said. “By translating these leaflets, we're making sure more folks can get the medical information they really need.”

She also emphasised that this isn't just about words on a page. When people understand health instructions in their mother tongue, they're more likely to use their medications correctly. This could mean fewer mistakes and a healthier community.

She said even though it is important to heed the advice of a doctor when it comes to medication, PILs are documents of primary importance because they enable patients to take their prescribed medication safely and correctly.

“Not everyone in our country is fluent in English or Afrikaans, nor can we assume that they understand specific medical terms in these two languages, which is why we felt it important to make these documents available in another mother tongue spoken by a large part of the local population.

“Providing this type of information in another local language ensures that a greater number of people have equal access to vital medical information. It promotes inclusivity and helps bridge language barriers, making healthcare more accessible to these communities.”

Other benefits of translating these documents into more South African languages include:

Effective communication

Being able to understand your medicine is a right, not a privilege, said Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics.

“It means better chats with your doctor, knowing just how much medicine to take, being clued up on side effects, and more — it's all about keeping you safe.”

Jennings pointed out that the stakes are high.

“Think about it: you get your prescription, but you're not quite sure what the doctor scribbled down. Or you're trying to make sense of the tiny print on the back of the pill box.

“If that feels like a puzzle, mistakes can happen, and those mistakes can be dangerous,” she explained.

The move to translate medicine info isn't just about preventing mishaps.

“We've got to acknowledge that in a place as diverse as South Africa, not everyone's first language is English or Afrikaans,” said Jennings.

According to a study published in the African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine, where isiXhosa-speaking families struggled to understand their healthcare providers, which made managing asthma really tough.

Imagine dealing with a chronic condition like asthma and not being able to grasp what the health professionals are telling you, or not feeling like you can ask questions. It's more than just frustrating — it can mean not getting the right care.

And it's not just language barriers that the translations tackle, but cultural ones too. Jennings pointed out that every community comes with its own health beliefs and practices.

“Recognising these differences shows respect and understanding, and it's crucial for getting those health messages across effectively.”

Cultural sensitivity

Communities often have unique cultural beliefs, practices, and perspectives on health and illness.

Translating information into their language allows for the incorporation of culturally sensitive language and concepts, making it more likely that individuals will trust and follow medical recommendations.

Informed decision-making

Informed consent is a fundamental principle of medical ethics. Translating information into local languages empowers patients to make informed decisions about their healthcare.

Without access to comprehensible medical information, individuals may not fully understand the risks and benefits of treatments, potentially leading to uninformed decisions.

Health disparities

Many communities face health disparities and a higher burden of certain diseases and conditions.

Providing medical information in their own language can help address these disparities by promoting better health literacy and understanding of preventative measures and treatment options.

Improved health outcomes

Ultimately, when patients have access to medical information in their native language, it can lead to better adherence to treatment plans, improved health outcomes, and a reduction in healthcare-related complications.

Twenty-seven of Pharma Dynamics’ product leaflets have been translated into isiZulu, adding to the existing PILs available in English and Afrikaans already.

According to her, it’s a starting point, and if feasible, the company may consider translating PILs into other local languages as well.

“PILs are documents that patients often refer to whenever they have doubts or simply want to obtain more specific information about the medicine that has been prescribed.

“Translating these leaflets into local languages is crucial for ensuring equitable access to healthcare, effective communication between healthcare providers and patients, informed decision-making and ultimately improving the overall health and well-being of South Africans.”

The isiZulu PILs are accessible via the QR code on the medication packs.