The next step in telemedicine: translation

Since the start of the pandemic, telemedicine has been on the rise, with a 33% increase in use among US patients. With its many advantages, including access for those who live far from healthcare providers, specialized care, eliminating patient wait and travel times, and allowing patients to see their healthcare providers without the risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19 or other diseases, it’s pretty certain that telemedicine is here to stay.

Still, many telehealth platforms aren’t accessible to all patients yet. This includes better serving users with limited or no English skills. About 8% of the US population has limited English proficiency, yet many telehealth platforms’ interface and services are only provided in English. Hopefully, as telemedicine grows increasingly more common, this situation will change. Still, the change won’t be easy.

There are two basic ways that telemedicine platforms can responsibly provide multilingual content:

1. by creating multilingual, localized versions of their platform

2. by providing healthcare interpreters who can help patients navigate the platform as well as communicate with their healthcare provider

Creating localized, multilingual versions of a telemedicine platform involves a number of challenges, some obvious and some less so. For instance, translators will not only need to be specialized in medical terminology, but also, in some cases, in specific company terminology and industry jargon.

Each language version of a platform will also have to be localized. This means that culture has to be taken into account when it comes to sharing information and allowing patients to communicate. Localization can also involve elements like color choices and page layout. For instance, pages for languages like Mandarin and Arabic, whose alphabets are read in a different direction from the original English, would have to be changed to accommodate features like spacing and bullet points.

Using medical interpreters is a less technical and labor-intensive alternative in the short term, but this solution also comes with its challenges. For instance, healthcare platforms should only work with certified medical interpreters. Like medical translators, they’ll not only be able to accurately translate medical terminology, but will also understand a patient’s culture, essential for communicating information like instructions and diagnoses.

Fortunately, there are many certified medical interpreters working remotely today. Unfortunately, because they’re real, live human beings who may have other appointments or simply need to rest, individual interpreters aren’t likely to be available on the clock or immediately. Telehealth platforms will need to partner with companies like aiaTranslations, which have a large team of interpreters, allowing access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If making telemedicine platforms accessible to patients with little or no English proficiency will take so much time and effort, you be wondering, why not just use other methods? There are definitely easier options out there. For instance, why not use machines to create translations of telehealth platforms, or ask users to translate them using their preferred app?

As we’ve often seen on this blog, machine translation can’t necessarily handle the subtleties of translation, very much including aspects like localization. This would be bad enough for a website or platform that was selling goods, but risking errors in medical translation means risking the health - and maybe even lives - of users.

For now, users who aren’t English-speakers may have to rely on family and friends for translation help when navigating telehealth platforms. For remote consultations, they also have a legal right to a medical interpreter. Hopefully soon this will also be a streamlined part of the user experience.

It will be interesting to see how telemedicine continues to evolve and which of the two safe translation solutions platforms choose to implement. Hopefully, in the months to come, the benefits of telehealth platforms will be accessible to all users, regardless of the language they speak.



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