Collaborating with Poison Control to Increase Equitable Language Access to Over-the-Counter Medicines

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are a broad category of medicines that people can buy without a prescription from a healthcare provider. These are often recommended to safely treat or provide symptom relief for common health issues, including COVID-19. For refugee, immigrant, and migrant (RIM) communities, the lack of translated resources for how to use OTC medicines, including potential drug interactions, can present a significant safety risk. In particular, infants and children younger than 2 years old are at increased risk of life-threatening side effects when given OTC medicines, unless previously discussed with a healthcare provider.

To reduce these risks, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) – Tucson and the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center formed a collaboration to promote equitable accessibility of OTC medicine instructions for IRC’s clients. 

What Are Poison Centers?

The Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) has designated 55 poison centers across the United States. These poison centers – which are staffed by nurses, pharmacists, and doctors who are trained poison experts – are available 24 hours a day to assist in poison emergencies and to provide resources and information about how to prevent poisoning in 161 languages

Specifically, poison centers provide the following services:

  • Providing help via phone during a poisoning emergency.
  • Giving advice to both health care professionals and the general public.
  • Disseminating poison prevention and treatment educational materials, including information on National Poison Prevention Week.
  • Conducting real-time data collection that supports the detection of public health emergencies.
  • Providing free and confidential help, with interpretation services available.

Collaboration between IRC Tucson and Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center 

As part of the Afghan Placement and Assistance (APA) program, refugee resettlement agencies (RA) have been providing services for Afghans who are arriving in the United States in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of new arrivals have been placed in congregate setting such as hotels, as agencies work to secure housing and other resources. 

With the local spread of COVID-19 and other seasonal viruses, IRC staff wanted to ensure clients have safe access to the OTC medicines they need to provide temporary relief for symptoms they are experiencing. IRC staff knew that OTC medicines for cold and flu were being used by clients and worried about the dangers of inappropriate use when only English instructions are available. Furthermore, newly arrived clients often have limited access to medical providers to consult (e.g. about correct dosage, whether medication is safe for infants and children) in their preferred language. 

To overcome these challenges, the IRC Tucson team reached out to the local poison control center, Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center – a center of excellence at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, for a potential collaboration. Once a partnership was set, IRC held a training for the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center’s pharmacist team, which included an overview of 1) the most common languages spoken by refugee groups in Arizona, 2) the general health background of the Afghan refugees coming into the United States, and 3) the most common health concerns to expect. IRC translated instructions for clients on how to call The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center and how to request interpretation services. University of Arizona’s pharmacist team compiled a list of safest OTC medicines as well as recommended supplies that should be available on site, such as a scale for weighing out exact dosage of certain medications for children. By having these medicines and supplies on site, IRC staff would also be able to better support clients in adhering to COVID-19 quarantine and isolation guidance. 

As a result of the partnership, whenever a client has a question and/or concern about an OTC medicine, they can use the translated instructions to call their local poison control’s pharmacist team, request interpretation in their language of choice, and ask any questions they may have (e.g. dosage, appropriate use, side effects, potential drug interactions, etc.). During these calls, an IRC staff member is on standby to troubleshoot and provide any additional support, if needed.

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