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A pill bottle on a prescription padTranslation of value formularies and preferred drug lists may not be as straightforward as it seems. The formularies we translate most often have six components:

  1. Headings (examples: Drug Name, Tier)
  2. Classifications or groups (examples: antifungals, NSAIDs, proton pump inhibitors)
  3. Drug names (examples: fluconazole, ibuprofen, NEXIUM)
  4. Tier (usually represented by a number)
  5. Requirements, Limits, or other Notes (examples: prior authorization required, limit 20 tablets/30 days)
  6. Index (an alphabetical list of every included drug)

Those without experience in the language services sector may not realize that part of translation is determining whether there is anything in the document that should NOT be translated. Some of these items are obvious, such as proper names. Others are not always so obvious, such as addresses, trademarked slogans (unless an equivalent trademarked slogan already exists in the target language), and hashtags that are in English. Translating value formularies is a complex task that requires careful attention to detail and accuracy to ensure that patients and healthcare providers can understand and access the information correctly.

The decision whether or not to translate certain copy depends on various factors. In translation of value formularies, our goal is to make the final document as clear and helpful as possible to the end user. We’ll go through each of the components above with this person in mind. In our specialization of health translations in foreign languages, value formularies are yet another example of the kind of content that gets translated in healthcare.


Value formulary bilingual headerWe always translate headings. This is explanatory information to help plan members understand their formulary, so translating it ensures that the end user will comprehend what type of information they are looking at. Typically, because of alphabetization, we keep the heading bilingual with the English first and the Translation after that in ( ).  An example of this is shown at the image on the left.

Classifications or groups

Patient looks confused during a telehealth consultationWe typically recommend listing both the source language and the translation for the classifications or group identifiers of the drugs on the list. Some of these identifiers are widely used and understood by the general public (such as “antibiotics” and “laxatives”). Many of them, however, are not widely known to those who are unfamiliar with medical terminology. For example, I’m not sure how many non-healthcare professionals know what an “antimitotic” or a “hormonal antineoplastic agent” is or does. Since health literacy levels are likely to vary among all plan members, and information may be more readily available at a local clinic in the source language, listing each classification or group in both the source and the target language gives patients the option to seek additional information in both languages.

Some of these classifications are accompanied by a brief explanation, such as “drugs to treat infections,” which might be helpful to know for a patient who has been prescribed a new drug. These descriptions are also usually written in relatively straightforward language. For these reasons, we replace the source language copy with a translation. Providing this information in a bilingual format can make the document look cluttered and overwhelming. Since the classification itself is listed nearby in both languages, we consider this to be a sufficient starting point for any additional research a member may want to do.

Drug Names

For starters, we have to determine whether the drug is a brand name or a generic. A brand name should never be translated, unless the brand has already established a separate, legally recognized in-country brand identity. For translation of value formularies in the US, however, the US brand name should always be maintained. This is the name that patients will see on their prescription.

For this same reason, we advise leaving generic names in the source language too. Some pharmacies offer translated prescription labels, but this is not always available nor is there a guarantee that the pharmacy translates into the patient’s first language. We feel that keeping generic drug names in the source language is the best way to maintain continuity between what the patient receives from their doctor, sees on their drug list, and reads on their prescription label.


This one will depend on the target language. If we’re translating into another language that uses Latin script, and the drug tier is listed as a numeral (1, 2, 3, etc.) then of course no translation is needed. If the target language uses a script other than Latin to denote numerals, or if the word “Tier” is included in the tier designation, we translate for the same reason that we translate headings.

Requirements, Limits, and Other Notes

We always translate these. Knowing whether they need a prior authorization or have a quantity limit for their prescription, among other stipulations, can help plan members be more informed about their care, better understand their insurance claims, and communicate more effectively with their doctor or pharmacist. Listing this information in both languages doesn’t serve an obvious purpose and as with the descriptions mentioned under “Classifications or groups,” it can make the document more challenging to read. We take readability very seriously!


Since we’ve already established that we typically leave all drug names in English, it follows that the index remains untranslated. The only exception is the word “Index,” which we translate for comprehension. If you choose to translate the generic drug names, it is imperative to ensure that the index is in the correct alphabetical order using the translated names. Luckily Microsoft Word and Excel both have built-in functions for alphabetizing. Word’s index creation tool also allows you to update page numbers, in case the drugs are found on different pages in the translated formulary than in the original source language formulary. The document does have to be set up correctly for this function to work.

Translation of Value Formularies

If you have a value formulary or drug list that you need translated to better serve your plan members, there may be more to that process than meets the eye. Another part of translating value formularies that can go unconsidered is preparation and formatting. For example, a PDF is not a source document. If you do not have access to the source document from which a PDF was created, it will have to be recreated. This tends to be very time consuming. You may also lose out on the efficiencies gained from repetitive content. A Word, Excel, or InDesign file will allow for the most efficient (and therefore cost effective) translation process. We’ve been translating value formularies for various clients for years. Contact us about your value formularies to see if we can best serve your translation needs!