Earlier this year I wrote about how language barriers are creating a new digital health divide and I suggested that the single biggest barrier to successfully connecting patients online internationally is language. On the one hand, the Internet has broken down many boundaries and has changed the geography of healthcare, uniting patients and healthcare stakeholders all over the world so that people are not constrained by information available in their own country alone. Yet on the other hand, language has become an even greater barrier as it separates people into groups – the advantaged or the disadvantaged – based on the information they can access.

I concluded that innovation is required, and offered some ideas about how to tackle language barriers in healthcare engagement. Now, in this report, I explore some of the innovative solutions being developed that are transforming healthcare engagement, improving access to healthcare, and literally saving lives by breaking down language barriers.

Solving patient-clinician language barriers

In the United States, over 34 million people speak Spanish as their primary language at home. When it comes to providing effective and reliable healthcare to this Spanish-speaking population, it is in the face to face encounter between physician and patient that any language barrier becomes critical.

I spoke with Dr Martha Bernadett, Executive Vice President at Molina Healthcare, a leading national healthcare provider in the United States, about the challenges of ensuring effective healthcare communication amongst non-English speaking communities in the US.

“It’s in the patient-clinician face-to-face encounter that patients gain the most important information and have the most important interaction,” says Dr Bernadett. “All other non-face-to-face interactions are trusted in a secondary manner, compared with the face to face encounter with a nurse or physician. After that is any written communication that the patient might take home, that they use to convey to family members what happened at that encounter. Those are the two critical elements in healthcare delivery where you don’t have as much margin for error.”

Molina Healthcare focuses on enhancing the relationship between patients and physicians, enabling them to communicate effectively with each other. Dr Bernadett told me that matching physician and patient language is an important aspect of the work they do. Where language matches or bilingual healthcare professionals are not available, interpreters are used for face-to-face encounters. Pre-translated documents also play an important role in efficient and accurate cross-language interactions.

Automating patient-physician interaction

Meanwhile, new technologies for automating translation are emerging and have been used successfully in healthcare. Staff at Bayshore Community Hospital in Holmdal, NJ, communicate with Spanish-speaking patients using an automated spoken translation tool that listens to a sentence in English, translates it to Spanish and speaks the Spanish sentence to the patient.

I spoke to Dr Mark Seligman, President and Founder of Spoken Translation whose product, Converser for Healthcare, is the innovative tool used by the hospital to engage patients in their own language and I asked him what makes the product reliable enough for use in a medical environment.

One of the keys to the product’s effectiveness, as Dr Seligman demonstrated to me, is ‘back-translation’ which confirms to the original speaker in text, what the translated text looks like when translated back into its original language. Through this innovation, it is easy to identify whether the context of an English word with multiple possible meanings has been correctly understood. If not, the correct meaning or inference can be specified by the user before the correct translation is spoken by the tool.

In the example below, the ambiguous meaning of the word ‘right’ in “Your right knee is broken” is clarified by selecting the correct meaning:


This is certainly an effective tool for reliable, context-sensitive translation that is making a real difference to areas including patient safety and compliance. The tool includes pre-translated compliance tools such as an informed consent form.

“Consent becomes a stronger thing when you can know and prove what you have said in a foreign language”, says Dr Seligman. The tool retains a transcript of conversations so it is possible to review exactly what was said. This opens another possibility for the future – the integration of transcripts with electronic medical records. Dr Seligman hopes this will be achieved next year.

“The challenge [of integrating with electronic medical records] is organisational rather than technological”, says Dr Seligman.

If this is starting to sound a little too much like a move towards fully-automated medical interactions, Dr Seligman is quick to reassure that Converser is not trying to replace human interpreters.

“Human minds, human hearts, human cultural understanding is irreplaceable.” says Seligman. “We’re not trying to replace humans. Converser will always work along with human interpreters.”

Emerging applications for automated translation

I asked Dr Seligman about the potential application of Spoken Translation’s technology into digital engagement channels such as social media. He explained that this is where he started out in the mid-1990’s, working on automating chat translations and it is certainly something that he hopes Spoken Translation will return to in the future. The company has a vision for applying their technology of today to live, verifiable, chat translation:

Translated chatSpoken Translation’s vision of the future: live, verified chat translation

Other innovation in the pipeline includes server-based technology that would allow Converser to be used from portable and mobile devices. Dr Seligman hopes this will be available for iPhone and Blackberry during 2011.

Purpose built automated healthcare translation

During my research for this article, I was pleased to learn from TAUS, a think tank on translation strategies, about customized machine translation systems (aka automated translation) which are designed for use in specific sectors. This is in contrast to Google translate which can be unreliable for specialist areas such as healthcare. These customized engines are trained using database of previous translations from a specific industry and include features to ensure consistent use of terminology. The result is better quality, more accurate translations.

Just such a sector specific solution is used by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Their system was originally developed in the 1970s, and today covers all combinations of English/Spanish and Portuguese and is being used daily for 90% of all PAHO’s translation needs, as well as by 75 clients. Another example is a Danish customized machine translation provider, Languagelens, whose purpose built solutions are used during clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies. Whilst human translators are needed to ensure that the final text is up to the high quality needed, the use of such customized automated engines drives down the cost of translation, increasing the amount of translation that can be done, and speeds up time to market.

TAUS also told me that it is possible to create automated engines rapidly when needed – within three weeks of the recent crisis in Haiti both Google and Microsoft added Haitian to the list of languages supported by their automated engines.

Real-time translation crowdsourcing

As automated translation technologies are deployed into healthcare environments, other innovative approaches to solving the automation challenge are emerging. New York, US based SpeakLike has developed a process that is enabling social media engagement to take place across 37 languages. Sanford Cohen, SpeakLike’s CEO told me that they were looking for a solution to enable real-time chat amongst people speaking different languages.

“We explored machine translation and found it was not good enough for our needs,” explains Cohen. “So we thought, ‘if machine translation were perfect, it would be integrated into everything we use – it would be in our email systems, in our chat systems, and in our content  management systems; but it’s not. But why can’t we have something that can be integrated into everything we use, with good quality translation?’ That’s when we started looking at crowdsourcing.” Cohen says this idea was how SpeakLike started:

“We got a large number of translators on our system, and users could send in a request when they needed it, 24/7, and then whatever translators were available or logged in first would provide the translation.”

The first application of the process was live chat, and in a 2008 beta SpeakLike demonstrated live, real-time chat between three users speaking English, Spanish and Chinese. This technology was implemented by PETLinQ, a provider of radiology imaging software management tools, to enable their user base of 71,000 doctors to collaborate in their own language.

After experimenting with the physician-patient interaction, where a dental reconstructive surgery in New York could support its worldwide patients pre- and post-surgery via international chat, SpeakLike started to develop other applications of the process. The translation platform was expanded to integrate with email, website content, and social media applications.

Today, a Twitter connector automates the translation of tweets, enabling either a single, multilingual Twitter feed or separate feeds for each language. Meanwhile, for bloggers using WordPress, a plugin automatically posts translated content into languages selected by a content author.

SpeakLike’s system is designed to manage the end to end process, automatically notifying translators, managing translated content, and publishing based on user options.

Cohen told me of a customer who was previously waiting typically for two weeks to have website updates translated into nine languages, but their content was out of date within four days. By integrating SpeakLike into their content management system, they were able to publish translations within less than 24 hours.

Responding to international health crises

The potential for transformation that can be achieved when people from different countries collaborate to solve healthcare challenges is exemplified in the work of international aid organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, where healthcare specialists from around the world work together in response to a crisis. But when the international team leaves an area of need, local physicians are often left without access to the international knowledge pool that exists during an aid mission.

Murdo Bijl, Founder and Executive Director of Health Connections International, saw this situation first hand when working with Médecins Sans Frontières in the former Soviet Union. The experience inspired him to set up an organisation focused on facilitating and promoting communication between professionals through multi-lingual exchanges of information. Health Connections International operates on a non-profit basis and focuses on improving responses to the HIV, tuberculosis and drug use epidemics in developing countries and resource-poor environments.

The organisation’s online knowledge and information sharing platform has been designed to allow healthcare professionals across the globe to share their experiences and exchange information, quickly and easily across multiple languages.

Healthcare professionals register as members of My Health Connections and can ask medical questions in their own language. Most questions are then manually translated and labelled by subject area (such as HIV/AIDS, treatment, medication) before being routed to an appropriate expert to be answered. Once answered, the response is translated back into the language in which the question was originally asked. It’s a laborious process but the result is a rich and growing knowledge base accessible in multiple languages.

MyHCIMyHCI includes a growing, multilingual expert medical information knowledge base

I spoke with Murdo Bijl about his vision. He told me that in the proof of concept that has been running since April this year, 600 unique questions and answers have been posted. He said that as the number of questions and answers continues to grow, the knowledge base will be able to provide the answers to most commonly asked questions:

“There will be a moment when the knowledge base will have enough information for people to find the answers to their questions. Then all the questions will be translated into Russian, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese. Right now we have 500 Q&As online, translated into Russian.”

Supporting hard-to-reach healthcare professionals

In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, local ‘focal points’ have been set up to bring Health Connections International’s service as close as possible to those healthcare professionals who may not have access to the Internet. As Bijl told me:

“We work with the medical academies and the ministry of health in the countries where we operate. They create their own knowledge centre in the capital city, with small focal points throughout the country which are equipped and manned by local physicians.

“In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, we have twenty four ‘focal points’ on the premises of the ministry of health’s facilities, such as an AIDS centre or tuberculosis clinic, where local doctors who may not have access to the Internet can take their questions.”

Bijl says that the online model has allowed Health Connections International to continue to support medical professionals when other more traditional methods and have been unable to:

“What we’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan is that when many organisations had to halt their programmes because of political unrest and violence, we had an increase in user traffic. So even in political unrest, the work goes on.”

But Bijl is not content to stop at the existing online solution. He is already exploring new channels to increase the reach into low-income countries using mobile technologies.

“The next step for us will be to use mobile technology. 3G is virtually everywhere now in the low-income countries where we operate.”

Global collaboration

Amidst these examples of innovation in translation, TAUS supports the translation industry and aims to help the world communicate better through better translation, actively encouraging collaboration, sharing of knowledge amongst stakeholders and open innovation.

I spoke with Rahzeb Choudhury, TAUS’ Operations Director, about their vision for collaboration between translation organisations. He told me about the TAUS Data Association, a collaboration platform for sharing translation data, where Molina Healthcare is one of 40 founding members. This non-profit organisation provides an open platform for sharing translated texts into a single shared database which is a key enabler for experimentation and innovation, providing open access to language resources to help train better customized automated language solutions such as those used by PAHO and Languagelens.

The resulting repository of translations currently contains 2.6 billion words in 315 languages, including a giant corpus from the European Medicines Agency. The benefit of such a platform for healthcare (or any industry) can be seen by searching for a medical term in the free language search engine.

A glimpse of what is possible

From face to face physician-patient interaction in the United States to crisis response in the former Soviet Union, it is encouraging to see innovators establishing approaches and technologies that are breaking down barriers and achieving successful multi-language healthcare engagement. There is much still to be achieved, yet the examples here provide a hopeful glimpse of what is possible.

I am grateful to TAUS for their support in researching this report. My thanks are also due to the following:

Health Connections International
Molina Healthcare]
SpeakLike
Spoken Translation


If this article has made you think about your healthcare engagement strategy in a new way, and you would like to talk to an expert who could help you develop your ideas, Creation Healthcare can help. Contact usnow to find out about our approach to global healthcare engagement strategy.

how language barriers are creating a new digital health divide