Interpreting & Translation Apps: the Future of Multilingual Medicine?
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Interpreting & Translation Apps: the Future of Multilingual Medicine?

Interpreting & Translation Apps: the Future of Multilingual Medicine?

Medical AppAre translation and interpreting services vital to comprehensive medical services? A growing number of medical care facilities, officials, and government advisory bodies seem to believe so. Moreover, advances in mobile technology — specifically with the rise of smartphones and tablets — have given rise to an impressive cottage industry of developers focused only on providing multilingual apps as an answer to the medical industry.

While the need is there, questions remain about whether the interpreting and translation app solutions really offer the best solution.

The Pain of Health Illiteracy

In the U.S., the most recent census data on its Hispanic and Latino population (53 million) showed that nearly 80 percent speak Spanish at home, of which some 9.6 million of them either do not speak English at all or “not well.” As reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, some two-thirds of them are uninsured.

The imperative is there, but the answers are slow coming. The roll out of, the Spanish-language version of the new U.S. health insurance marketplace of Obamacare / Affordable Care Act, for example, has been plagued with considerable and highly embarrassing delays.

The problem of multilingual healthcare delivery is certainly not limited to the U.S. As we reported last year, the Australian healthcare industry recently revised its translation standards in a bid to boost health literacy rates and improve care for the country’s disadvantaged communities. According to data Australia published in 2009, more than 50 percent of the country’s population did not even meet the World Health Organization’s health literacy standard.

“There is a lot of evidence out there that if patients can communicate in a language they are comfortable with treatment has proved more effective,” said Ami Desai, director of clinical administration at the Hospital for Special Care in Connection, speaking with the New Britain Herald. “Patients are more compliant and make more informed decisions.”

The Medical Translation App Proposition

Language app developers are seeking to bridge the gap between patients and their healthcare providers, and they are claiming attention from unusual quarters. Jibbigo, the brainchild of Mobile Technologies, which was acquired by Facebook for an undisclosed sum last year, was used by U.S. naval forces in a medical translation initiative in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a report in The National.

The for-profit Canopy Apps was featured in Entrepreneur in February for managing to scoop up a $2 million grant investment from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. And Fed Tech Magazine reported last year that the State Department is putting its weight behind mobile technologies, including those for translation. Check out this useful introduction to the Canopy Medical Translator app for instant medical translation:

“There is a tremendous interest in languages in every branch of government,” said language industry expert Donald DePalma of Common Sense Advisory to Fed Tech. “With mobile devices, the various agencies can equip all their employees with ready access to language interpretation.”

Translation Apps: Just Right or Not Enough?

In an article for, writer Sophie Quinton questions whether the current crop of medical translation apps can meet the complex need of the medical care context. “While today’s digital tools can help communicate basic information across language barriers, there’s not yet a digital substitute for a trained medical interpreter or a fully bilingual practitioner.”

The challenges are certainly considerable:

  • Subject matter expertise: Are the resources in place to meet the diverse needs of the cardiologist, the dentist, and the podiatrist?
  • Expense: While today’s medical apps are clearly insufficient, can medical systems afford a future of closed, duplicative, and expensive customizations?
  • Mode of delivery: Between translation and interpretation and tools such as pictograms, dictionaries, and phrase books, how can medical staff ensure that they are really being understood?

Medical science itself has taken on far greater challenges than these, of course. What mobile technology can bring to medical treatment and the delivery of care, regardless of language, would be a boon for patients and providers worldwide.

We have spoken about voice translation — a key feature of many medical translation apps and technologies — in our webinar titled The Next Wave: Content Curation, Mass Personalization, and Spoken Translation. Check out the webinar recording.