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Video, VoIP Translation Service Eases Language Pain For Patients And Doctors

The video and voice service allows doctors in California hospitals to quickly get translators to communicate with non-English-speaking patients.

Medical jargon can be complicated enough to understand, especially when you're not feeling well or are frightened. But throw in language barriers, and a health crisis can become even more scary, confusing, and potentially dangerous.

When a doctor treats a patient who speaks another language, it's often difficult to ensure that the patient and his or her family understand the doctor, especially when an interpreter is not available

Three hospitals in California are addressing this problem using a new voice and video over IP network that connects doctors, patients, and interpreters in real-time via a Health Care Interpreter Network, or HCIN.

Using consoles set up at nursing stations, doctors push a button to connect with an interpreter who speaks English and the language of the patient. Calls can be prioritized—so that emergency situations jump to the top of the queue—but currently all calls for interpretive services can be answered in less than five minutes, and most are connected within 40 seconds.

Right now, the network has several dedicated interpreters who speak Spanish—which is the most common foreign language spoken at the hospitals.

But the doctors can also connect to other employees at the hospitals who speak less common languages, such as Hindi. Those employees hold other jobs at those hospitals, such as in the accounting department, but have been trained to provide medical interpreter services for the network. Right now, calls can be routed to interpreters of five languages: Spanish, Cambodian, Hindi, Hmong, and Tongan.

The three California hospitals currently participating in the HCIN right now are San Joaquin General Hospital, San Mateo Medical Center, and Contra Costa Health Services. Two more hospitals in the state are planned to go online in coming months.

Hospitals in several other states, including Texas, have also expressed interest in building their own regional interpreter networks, says Melinda Paras, CEO of Paras and Associates, which designed and built the HCIN. The HCIN is based on Cisco Unified Communication system, including Cisco Unified Contact Center Express and Cisco Unified CallManager

Currently, the network routes about 3,000 videoconference and phone calls each month from the three hospitals to interpreters. The network and software, however, can scale to handle much higher volumes, Paras says.

The HCIN is the first call center in the country to use voice and video over IP technology, says Cisco.

"The health-care industry has lots of problems, but language barriers between patients and doctors is an important piece of the puzzle that's often overlooked," says Markella Kordoyanni, a health industry analyst at research firm Datamonitor. "This is the first time I've seen technology being used in this way to address a difficult communication problem between patient and doctors," she says.

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