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Businesses, in healthcare and beyond, suddenly need to implement medical translation and interpretation services rapidly and on a massive scale. With physical contact discouraged and social distancing required, the need for remote solutions to bridge language gaps has never been more critical. 

Innovative solutions are delivering cross-language communication services on demand and at scale, remotely delivering medical interpretation and translation on-demand via video and virtual apps, replacing real-world meetings and conferences.

Both translation and interpretation are in the critical path of communications during the COVID-19 crisis, reflecting the fast-moving flow of vital information. It is hard enough for speakers of the majority language to keep up with changing medical data, health recommendations, and legal measures. More acute problems confront those with linguistic limits and hearing disabilities.

Who Needs Translation and Interpretation in this Crisis?

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, businesses have been scrambling to adapt their communications with the public – citizens, and consumers – and with business-to-business partners. This is especially true in healthcare – hospitals and clinics – but also generally applicable to both the public and private sectors. For obvious reasons, there has been a movement away from face-to-face physical interactions to remote, virtual interactions. Luckily – virtually everyone has a communications device handy – phone or computer.

But the transition from physical to virtual communication falters when there are messaging difficulties due to lack of linguistic proficiency or physical disabilities. In the United States, the latest census data, updated through 2013, indicate that more than 25 million U.S. residents 5 years or older speak English “less than well” – this representing nearly 9% of the relevant population. The majority are speakers of Spanish and its dialects, with senior citizens disproportionately represented. Many of these Limited English Proficiency (LEP) individuals reside in urban centers. 

In addition, there are individuals who are unable to communicate by phone. In the US, according to the NIH, one in 20 is hard of hearing and one in a million is considered functionally deaf. 

How are Healthcare Providers, Public Officials, and Businesses Serving Them?

So senior citizens, those most likely to be affected by COVID-19 also have communication disabilities, either due to never having learned English well or due to cognitive or physical impairment. They are protected under the civil rights act and guaranteed access to health information in a way that they can understand. 

In pre-COVID times, hospitals and clinics employed on-site interpreters, whose job it was to be present in meetings of health care providers, patients, and their families. Where this was not possible, interpretation was provided over the phone: Over the Phone Interpretation (OPI) became a niche due to government requirements, backed by regulations of states. For older populations, however, OPI proved uncomfortable. And unhelpful for the hearing impaired.

The Rise of Video Remote Interpretation and Machine Translation

As a result, OPI has begun to be superseded by Video Remote Interpretation. Because of the ubiquity of smartphones and flatscreens, with high bandwidth delivery, delivering quality video ceased to be a technical problem.

In addition to the now dominant Zoom, it was long possible to converse in pairs or groups via Skype, WhatsApp, and other video conferencing apps. The dream was to marry the video conference capability with machine translation. Since the application of neural network technology to machine language apps in 2015, the quality of AI-driven translations has improved dramatically. 

All the global tech leaders – FAMGA – jumped into the machine translation game. 

  • Google ingested the collective protocols of the EU to train its software multilingually, and the Translate app is generally considered the best of class. 
  • Microsoft Translator offers a one-to-many interpretation solution for conferences where software interprets a speech simultaneously into the preferred language of each listener.
  • Amazon and Apple have endowed their virtual voice assistants, Alexa and Siri respectively, with poly-linguistic interpretation abilities.
  • Facebook is ingesting the posts of its 2 billion users to hone its translation abilities.

Microsoft and Google support 100+ languages each. Both have apps that voice-interpret for speakers of two different languages in casual conversation. What works reasonably well for individuals, however, is inadequate for high-stakes medical and business conversations. And Video translation is not yet supported, just voice.

What remained a bottleneck for precise interpretation was the gap between the hardware and video conferencing platforms – screens small and large – and linguistic expertise. Machine translation works well enough for structure information like weather reports, and sports results. Diagnoses and deal-making, however, involve more risk and thus require more expertise.

medical professional using a laptop

Shotgun Marriages: VRI, Virtual Reality, and the Language Services Industry

So how to wed on-demand human expertise with a scalable video conferencing solution? The solution has been a marriage of convenience between videoconferencing and interpretation services. The linguistic talent did not need to be grown in-house but via partnerships in the language services industry, where the top translation agencies, some supporting 100 languages or more, supply the interpreters on demand. Stratus Video emerged as a niche leader and claimed to answer calls for skilled interpreters in less than a minute. 

In January, AMN Healthcare Services (NYSE: AMN), announced an agreement to acquire Stratus Video for a purchase price of $475 million. “We quickly pivoted and added capabilities so that our clients could use that platform for COVID-19 triage purposes,” AMN CEO Susan Salka said about the acquisition to CNBC.  

She’s not alone in recognizing the need for VRI in this crisis.  The EU scheduled a major conference on remote simultaneous interpretation, to be held in Brussels in March. Alas, it had to be canceled. Evidently, no one thought to do it remotely, by videoconference.

Thinking ahead a bit further ahead were folks at Laval Virtual World, an all-in-remote gathering of the extended reality industry. Industry mavens XRCrowd provided avatar interpreters to assist virtual attendees and, for hearing-impaired members, virtual signing — maintaining social distance while making sure nothing got lost in translation.

The Introduction of Augmented Reality to Remote Health Services

In its most base form, augmented reality is a form of taking virtual reality and integrating it with real-world environments. Augmented reality works by using many different tools and sophisticated software to integrate the products of these tools. The tools generally include a camera and display and digital imagery and may include audio features as well. Originally known as Spatial Computing, augmented reality devices have come a long way since their introduction by Robert Mann in the 1960s. 

While the most common use of augmented reality at present is within the realm of advertising, it also has a place in terms of remote health services as well. However, to understand this better, it would help to be able to visualize a scenario to have a better understanding of what augmented reality does. 

Imagine shopping for a new set of clothes online. It would generally be challenging to determine exactly what you would look like wearing those clothes using nothing more than the imagination. With the integration of augmented reality, you can take a selfie, and then use augmented reality programs to show you what you would look like in any given combination of the clothes on display. 

The technologies that include augmented reality is already in use in a great many applications within the healthcare industry. Many of these are for remote medical diagnostics or other similar uses, and some even include audio software that can be used for medical interpretation or translation. 

Among the most common uses of augmented reality devices currently at work within the healthcare industry are for assisting doctors in the real-time visualization of veins and even during medical surgery. Augmented reality can use actual photographs or other digital representations of the patient within the augmented reality environments to give doctors access to the success or failure of invasive surgeries as they happen.

Moving into the realm of remote health care services, augmented reality is in its very early stages of use, but holds very promising possibilities for the future. 

Augmented Reality as a Supplement to Medical Translation and Interpretation

Among the most promising visions at present is the ability of students to learn in a more realistic environment and to provide doctors with real-time information about what is going on within the body of the patient. In the case of medical students, the augmented reality allows medical students to translate different sets of data into a diagnosis without the need for actual patients. 

There are some cases where even a certified medical interpreter is prohibited from speaking directly about certain topics or subject matter, including body parts. Most of this is due to cultural and religious beliefs that disavow the use of verbal communication in these areas, even for purposes of translating or interpreting for a medical diagnosis. 

In such cases, a medical interpreter could theoretically use an interactive, augmented reality medical device in order to allow for a more complete diagnosis of the patient. The interpreter can then translate this information into a verbal or written form for the doctor, providing the doctor with the necessary information to be able to diagnose the problem and prescribe the proper treatment. 

Augmented reality technologies have also shown to be of great benefit in getting second opinions, most notably in cases where doctors may wish to consult with other doctors in foreign lands. This practice is especially common for doctors practicing in remote or isolated environments, but who may require someone with access to more advanced facilities to conduct a more thorough examination. 

At present, there may still be a continued need for the use of remote video interpreters or other certified medical translators to enable a completely accurate exchange of information, though recent technological improvements in machine translation may make this function of the live interpreter obsolete as well. It is sometimes difficult to imagine just how far any technology may advance in the near future. 

There are some companies such as Google Glass and Microsoft who are actively engaged in the creation of new augmented technologies replete with the capacity to actively engage in medical translation and interpretation

Recent advances in technology have also resulted in a great reduction in the costs associated with augmented reality. Given the practical applications for augmented reality for healthcare providers and its ability to transcend the need for translation, interpretation, and in some cases, even the physical presence of doctors, look for a serious increase in the use of augmented reality in health care in the near future. 

Medical Translation, Interpretation, Remote Services, and Insurance

medical transcriber and translation

It should be noted that virtually all of the different options for insurance are going to vary depending on the individual insurance policy. However, in terms of medical translation services and hiring certified medical interpreters, if one is needed, this should be discussed with the insurance agent before purchasing the insurance policy. 

Even in cases where insurance will not cover the cost of augmented reality or other technologies, never mind medical interpreters and translating, there are still many free or inexpensive solutions available. There are a great many translation apps specially made for medical interpretation, not only for patients but also for doctors to use during diagnoses.

These are generally provided in the forms of medical translation apps that have been created and developed in cooperation with doctors. In such cases, the onus may be on the person receiving treatment to remember that medical terminology is very specific and precise by design. It is important that even the patient explain as clearly and precisely as they are able, what the problems are, and what any symptoms may be in their case. 

There are literally tens of millions of low-English proficiency residents in the United States alone, and with the recent global pandemic, the need for medical interpreters and medical document translators has never been greater. If technology can help to solve these issues with medical communications while at the same time increasing the quality of healthcare, all the better.

Written By
Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider with more than 12 years of experience in rendering industry-leading translation and interpretation services in more than 100 languages to diverse clients and industries.

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