In late February 2020, when the Diamond Princess cruise ship was showing the world the rapid spread of coronavirus infection, Brit David Abel and his wife Sally believed that they had tested positive for COVID-19 and were bound for medical evacuation in Japan. The greatest distress he expressed, however, did not concern suffering from the virus itself but also, according to the BBC, the inability to understand what Japanese quarantine officials were telling him about his test results. Happily, the Abels have since recovered and returned to England, but the problem of communicating essential medical information across languages in the pandemic has become far more acute.
COVID-19 Jacks Up the Urgent Need for Real-Time Medical Interpretation
As the intense pressure of the coronavirus crisis on healthcare facilities grows by the day, across the world, the need for communication across languages mounts. The pandemic has stranded travelers, expats, and foreign workers within foreign borders, with no ability to communicate with medical personnel. Even as citizens rush back to their homelands, many remain stranded, unable to understand or communicate in unfamiliar languages. The need for real-time medical translation and audio-video interpretation services has never been greater. Which tech innovations can save time, money and lives? Which language products and professional translation services can deliver real-time translation and interpretation of medical data at scale?
The problem of communicating essential medical information in a foreign language goes in two directions. Patients have difficulties explaining their symptoms and obtaining the guidance they need. Healthcare professionals find it hard or impossible to communicate diagnoses and therapy to patients and their families.
Addressing the Needs of Limited Language Proficiency Patients in a Crisis
The problem is not a new one: the term Limited Language Proficiency patient is a familiar term, and not surprisingly. Some 19 million people in the US alone – most of them Hispanic — are believed to have Limited English Proficiency, rendering them vulnerable to health crisis. Thus, in the US, English to Spanish medical translation, and Spanish and English medical translation, are in high demand.
In normal times, that need was addressed by having interpreters physically present in the hospital, able to provide medical translation services in both directions. But since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the extreme risk of contagion has reduced radically the availability of in-person medical translators and medical interpreters. Inability to provide language access in an emergency can lead to misunderstanding and communications that can have clinical consequences for LEP patients, adverse health outcomes and lawsuits for practitioners. Happily, medical translation companies, both on the product and services sides, have stepped into the breach to deliver solutions.
Distinguishing Critical Medical Translation and Interpretation Services
Medical translation essential involves translating documents: reports, studies, test results as well as briefings from health facilities. The need for medical document translation and medical record translation have increased dramatically during the crisis, with doctors and nurses barely sleeping and spending their working hours providing emergency care and striving to save lives. Public health and hospital officials are pressed to provide multilingual announcements, presentations, and press notices.
Medical interpreters, by contrast, operate in the realm of the spoken word, mediating real-time communications between healthcare professionals and their patients or between officials and the media. Interpreters provide either simultaneous interpretation – translating almost at the same time as the speaker, usually through earphones – or consecutive interpretation, providing translations in alternation with the speaker.
In either case, the nature of the contagion has complicated the delivery of these services in person. Certified translators and interpreters, like other “non-essential” personnel, have been urged to distance themselves from healthcare facilities and certainly from contact with patients lest they become infected themselves.
Deploying Medical Translation Tech and Tools at Scale in the COVID-19 Crisis
The need for such remote services has long been recognized. The more veteran systems are called OTP (Over the Phone) interpretation. A more recent innovation is Video Remote Interpreting. In 2019, according to Statista, both OTP and VRI combined were a $1.2 billion industry in the US.
These industries have received a big boost in recent decades as legislation has enshrined a patient’s right to receive medical communications in an understandable language. In the United States, both on the federal and state levels, health care providers must provide interpretation and translation in a language understandable to the patient. As soon as these laws were passed, many translation agencies rushed to provide medical interpreting as a specialization, initially delivering OTP. However, telephone delivery proved to be difficult. LEP senior citizens especially often found themselves befuddled by interpretation over the phone.
Both patients and doctors prefer to see the face of the medical interpreter, even if it appears remotely. In the past decade, many OTP interpretation services have been supplemented by VRMI, delivered via flatscreens in health facilities and, increasingly, on the phones or tablets of doctors and patients. Medical translation online is delivered by software algorithms like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator, most healthcare providers will not risk malpractice by relying on unverified machine translations. Rather, they entrust medical interpretation to a certified translation agency with trained medical interpreters on call for many language pairs. Especially in the current crisis, they can provide quick-turn, on-demand interpretation services on short notice.
Other health care facilities have invested in a more structured VRMI solution which delivers medical interpretation for such remote conversations. Stratus Video in Clearwater, Florida, provides the leading solution in this niche, claiming to serve nearly 2000 healthcare facilities. and say that average connection time to start an interpretation session is a mere 30 seconds. Cyracom in Tucson, Arizona is a competitor. Both VRMI providers provide the hardware and software, then pair up with leading translation service agencies to deliver the interpreting talent on demand. Potentially such video solutions can deliver the intensive scalability needed in the current pandemic. In normal times, such interpretation conversations need to be scheduled, but in the COVID-19 crisis, some facilities, especially in urban centers, need continual availability of medical interpreters. VRMI can help reduce the spread of infection while protecting staff from the potential exposure of meeting patients in person. This helps patients manage symptoms at home, obviating the need to come into overstressed and potentially infectious healthcare fa