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FDA Broadens Its Vocabulary

Many Americans speak a language other than English at home, and some either don’t speak English well or at all.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to ensure that all Americans, including those with a limited ability to communicate in English, get the facts on topics, including new information on medical products, important to their health.

To accomplish that goal, in January 2014 the agency released its Language Access Plan, an evolving blueprint for outreach to people with limited English proficiency in a language and manner that they understand.

More than 60 million Americans age 5 and older (21% of the U.S. population) speak a language other than English at home. Overall, 15 percent of these people don’t speak English well and about 7 percent don’t speak English at all. Research shows that language barriers contribute to disparities in health and health care, especially for children.

What’s a Language Access Plan?

FDA is required by Presidential Executive Order to identify the needs of people with limited English proficiency and to provide meaningful access to language-assistance services. In addition, the 2012 Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act requires the agency to review and modify, as necessary, its communication plan to inform and educate health care practitioners and patients on the benefits and risks of medical products, with particular focus on underrepresented subpopulations, including racial subgroups.

In 2013, an agency-wide working group led by the Office of Minority Health (OMH) reviewed activities across all FDA centers to identify goals for the Language Access Plan.

“We want to broaden our capabilities across the agency to ensure that minorities and people in underserved communities are informed about the safety of FDA-regulated products they may be using in a language they understand,” says OMH Director Jonca Bull, M.D.

FDA translates into other languages a wide variety of communications, including safety updates related to food and medical products that have specific relevance to minority communities. For example, FDA’s investigation into the presence of arsenic in rice is significant to Asian, Indian and other populations that eat a lot of rice.

“FDA communications on this issue were translated into Spanish and Chinese to ensure that the information reached the most vulnerable people,” says Bull.

All Consumer Updates and most press releases are translated into Spanish and, depending on the issue, other languages such as Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Arabic, Japanese, Laotian, Portuguese, Thai, Russian and Polish, says Gloria Sanchez-Contreras, who coordinates FDA’s Spanish-language communications.

Some issues affect many communities, large and small, and that means reaching people who speak lesser known languages. For example, FDA’s diabetes information for women is available in Bengali, Chamorro, Urdu, Cambodian, Samoan, Taglish, Thai and Tongan.

The Language Access Plan is critical to FDA’s mission to protect public health. A March 2014 recall of cheese because of possible Listeria contamination involved products popular among Hispanics, who make up 17% of the U.S. population.

“This was a serious concern—affecting many products and millions of consumers—that required prompt action,” Bull says. “So all our communications were in Spanish and English to reach people who needed to know. In addition, FDA’s Office of External Affairs reached out to Spanish-language news outlets to make sure Latinos stayed informed.”

FDA’s public affairs specialists, who represent the agency across the country, and its Office of Regulatory Affairs’ field offices play a critical role, Bull says. “Many of the staff members are multilingual. They also have a higher-level awareness and are always thinking about how to reach these communities in their daily work,” she says.

We Text and Tweet

Another key piece of the Language Access Plan is digital information, especially social media, which many minorities use to stay connected and informed. Take Latinos: 76% go online using a mobile device; 49% own a smartphone; and 68% use social media.

FDA has increased its presence in social media, such as Facebook, and via mobile devices. That includes a Spanish-language Twitter feed (@FDAenEspanol) and Pinterest board, OMH’s telenovela on medical safety, and a Spanish-language playlist on YouTube.

“We are using more and more tools to engage people via their smartphones,” Bull says. “We are texting and have optimized our content for mobile devices. A great example of FDA’s work on language access is our web-based communications.”

FDA is also connecting to racial and ethnic minorities through its Patient Network and Health Professional Network. Those networks forge a connection between FDA and patients, patient advocate and health care professionals.

A critical part is communicating in plain language and using focus groups to make sure FDA’s message is easy to understand.

“We encourage consumers to give us feedback on our reports,” Bull says. “Consumers can stay informed on a variety of health topics, product approvals and safety by signing up for our biweekly Patient Network News.”

This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

April 15, 2014

For more about food, medicine, cosmetic safety and other topics for your health, visit FDA.gov/ForConsumers.
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