A physician friend of this reporter found himself in a peculiar situation some years ago during his residency. He was to perform a particularly embarrassing procedure on an elderly lady. He had done the procedure before, and had no qualms in explaining it in detail to set her mind at ease. Complications arose when he realized she didn’t speak any language he spoke, and that she was about to be in for a rather unpleasant surprise (as was he, when she finally realized what he was about to do).
One of the few technology oriented presentations at this year’s Geneva Health Forum, UniversalDoctor, is a project that aims to prevent such situations. Through software on a portable device, the patient and doctor talk and ask questions by selecting statements in their own language from a user interface panel. These statements are then translated into the other language, and the conversation continues. The software runs on iOS devices, and can be found in the iTunes store (there’s even a free edition with limited functionality), but the project also develops customized versions for hospitals and other organizations. The iOS app has 9 languages (amongst which Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese); hospital-grade versions can have up to 15 languages. Early this summer the company plans to have 30 languages available.
As people’s lives could potentially depend on the accuracy of an iPhone app, the pre-set phrases go through several levels of scrutiny before being unleashed. Professional translators work on the phrases, and practitioners are consulted on the types of questions to be asked. The iOS app has been downloaded 150,000 times by a variety of travelers and doctors, and several hospitals in Portugal, Scotland and Spain are currently using the software, regularly providing feedback to improve the application.
The clean interface consists of a screen with buttons leading to questions grouped by topic. After determining the type of user (patient or physician), one selects from a range of questions, which have been set up so as to streamline the diagnostic process. Once a question or statement is selected a voice and text prompt translate.
The developers emphasize that their work does not replace the value of a human interpreter, but that it does help alleviate communication problems with some of the more day-to-day illnesses. An added benefit for travelers is the ability to record and carry a medical record document, which is then translated immediately into a foreign language. One can imagine a GP in a remote part of Tuscany, or even Afghanistan, using the app to help diagnose the condition of a wandering tourist - assuming, of course, that one of the two has an iOS device.
(Photo © Arun Luykx)
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