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'Point-and-speak' cards aim to conquer language barrier at pharmacies

The "Symptoms" point-and-speak card now in use at over 20 Forall-run pharmacies in the Tokyo region.

Non-Japanese speaking customers of some 20 Tokyo area drugstores are giving rave reviews to the shops' "point-and-speak" system for describing symptoms and explaining prescription drugs.

    Representatives of the stores that have introduced the language barrier-beating system are set to present its successes at the Japan Pharmaceutical Association (JPA)'s annual conference on Oct. 8 and 9, and hope to see it spread nationwide.

    Pharmacist Haruka Hirose asks a customer about their symptoms by using her bilingual point-and-speak system, at the Nozomi pharmacy in Tokyo's Koto Ward on Aug. 21, 2017. (Mainichi)

    The brains behind the idea belong to Haruka Hirose, a 29-year-old pharmacist at the Nozomi drugstore -- operated by the Forall chain of pharmacies -- in Tokyo's Koto Ward. When she joined the company in April last year, she noticed that the staff members and the store's many foreign customers often couldn't understand one another well enough. To solve the problem, she drew inspiration from the popular "Tabi no yubisashi kaiwa cho," a book of point-and-speak illustrations and text for travelers.

    The system Hirose came up with is quite simple. She made cards for each part of a pharmacy visit, from arriving at the counter to describing symptoms and instructions on using medication. On each card there is a series of illustrations, each paired with corresponding Japanese and English words, as well as an English pronunciation guide rendered in the phonetic katakana character set.

    For example, the "symptoms" card features a picture of a woman holding her head and looking unhappy. Above it is the Japanese "zutsu" and the English "headache," the latter also spelled out in katakana. The illustration for "itchy" ("kayui" in Japanese) is of a boy frantically scratching his tummy and back. There are now 30 symptoms and conditions described on the card, plus basic phrases like "Thank you for waiting" and "What is your temperature?" Once the first version of the point-and-speak cards was introduced at Hirose's pharmacy, staff and foreign customers found they could finally communicate about specific symptoms.

    When word of the system's success reached Forall headquarters, the firm quickly put together an "English team" and, starting in autumn last year, introduced the point-and-speak cards at 22 stores in Tokyo and three area prefectures. The scope of bilingual services has also expanded, such as including a sheet of English language instructions with medication.

    Backed by government subsidies, there is an ongoing effort to install multilingual signage at hospitals ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. However, there is no such funding available for pharmacies. According to a 2014 survey by RAD-AR, an organization backed by the JPA and other bodies and committed to promoting correct use of medication, 78 percent of pharmacies nationwide do not have staff capable of serving customers in foreign languages. Meanwhile, 89 percent of pharmacists surveyed said they were nervous about such interactions.

    "I'd like to make sure that entire local communities support foreign patients everywhere by also making point-and-speak systems for nutrition guidance, and getting local governments involved," said Hirose. Forall, meanwhile, said it is considering releasing its data on the project to anyone interested to help boost the system's adoption.

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