Medical Translation and Interpretation

There are relatively few people in the world who would question the severity of the global Covid-19 pandemic and the direct impact it has had on our lives. There are perhaps fewer still who would deny the rapidly expanding technological revolution that again has a direct correlation to how we live our daily lives. There have been many realizations during this crisis, but not a lot of people have been pointing out the importance of medical translation and interpretation.

Medical translators and interpreters have been working round the clock to ensure that global communications go unhindered. Their services ensure that critical medical information from patient records to coronavirus research can be distributed globally as fast as possible.

Only when the relevant information has been accurately translated can it be made ready for global distribution to all of the institutions fighting against the Covid-19 global pandemic. While these people may never receive any personal kudos for their work, they remain an important part in the global effort to save lives that may otherwise be lost due to the coronavirus outbreak.

At the same time however, medical translation and interpretation technologies also play an increasingly important role in other areas of medicine and health care, for both doctors and patients. This is not only true in terms of the current global medical crisis, but in medical care and treatment for people all over the world and other crises, both natural and man-made.

Medical Translation, Interpretation and Localization

Medical document translation services require a very precise and literal translation. Medical interpretation on the other hand, often involves more nuanced communications, most notably in the back and forth dialog between a doctor and a patient.

This in turn, often requires an intimate knowledge in more than just the language pair involved in the translation, but also in terms of any cultural, social or religious sensitivities that may be a matter of concern for the doctor or patient. This is what is more commonly known as localization.

Medical document translation services are currently being undertaken at what must be unprecedented levels. With academic institutions, medical laboratories and scientists around the globe all working on solutions for the Covid-19 pandemic, there is an increasing need for medical translators. Unfortunately, live interpretation and other more personal translation services are being put on hold as people are forced to practice social distancing and isolation. Medical translation technologies however, have still managed to provide many beneficial solutions.

The Importance of Certified Medical Translation and Interpretation Services

According to the Medicaid Website, medical interpreters are mandated by law in the United States. More specifically, “All providers who receive federal funds from HHS for the provision of Medicaid/CHIP services are obligated to make language services available to those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Section 504 of the Rehab Act of 1973.

However, language interpretation services are not classified as mandatory 1905 services.” What are 1905 Services? These are the costs to the patient that must be reimbursed. Similar laws are in place in other areas around the globe, which has led to a very disturbing trend in terms of medical interpreters and medical translation services.

Whether from an inability to pay certified medical interpreters or an unwillingness to wait for reimbursement, people around the world tend to use friends or family members to serve in the capacity of medical translators. The problem here is that medical terminology has many terms commonly used by people, though these words may have a different, often more specific meaning in medical terms.

According to a report posted by the National Institute of Health (NIH), “Our findings highlight the importance of working with translators who not only possess ‘textbook’ knowledge of both languages but also an appreciation of the sociocultural factors that affect how people interpret and understand meaning.” Once again, medical translation and interpretation technology has seemingly come to the rescue, this time in the form of devices, gadgets and even apps.

Medical Translation Devices and Apps

Medical translation devices come in all shapes, sizes and program languages, and while most of them focus on medical translation or interpretation, not all apps are created equal. Innovative people in need of assistance, from doctors to patients to students, all from diverse backgrounds, have helped to change the way that people look at medical apps and devices.

Machine translations have often been used as something of a benchmark, though to date, they remain less than ideal for medical interpretation purposes. One of the primary limitations of machine translations is in the fact that machines to date can only provide literal translations. Unfortunately, the AI has not yet been sufficiently developed to allow for a machine to consistently determine context or relation.

In the case of certain words, there is no literal translation. In other cases, there are words that have numerous different meanings and which the AI cannot always determine accurately. Two possible solutions for this potentially dangerous shortcoming of machine medical translations are Digital Communications Assistance Tools or DCAT apps, and Post Editing Machine Translations or PEMT.

Post Editing Machine Translations are a viable solution when excessively large volumes of data must be processed and translated. The initial translations are automated and generally completed at much faster rates than human medical translators could accomplish. The resulting work is then edited by a human translator who is intimately familiar with both languages and also with any specific terminology as may be involved with the translation.

Solutions similar in nature to the PEMT have been provided through Digital Communications Assistance Tools. A study conducted for one such app that was posted on Research Gate indicates that more than eighty percent of the initial study group had a favorable opinion of the tool and found that it did help in providing them with a better capacity to share important information in their verbal communications with the doctors. The DCAT in this study guided patients through an algorithm based on common reasons or health issues for medical appointments and then provides a summary to the doctor to allow for a more accurate diagnosis of conditions.

Increasingly common in apps for medical translation and interpretation, is the inclusion of a more focused approach translating common phrases rather than attempting a full medical translation. In this way, the medical translation app can provide a number of options for the patient or the medical care provider. These options may include similar but different words, giving the patients choices that will be more exact in regards to the specific meaning of the words in medical terms.

Given the high transmission rates for the Covid-19 virus, and the fact that it is so contagious, the information being more accurate will assist the doctor in prescribing a more applicable response. In the case of the coronavirus global pandemic, this could save not only the life of the patient, but of virtually anyone who may come into contact with that patient.

Certified medical interpreters remain the gold standard when it comes to medical communications, though even when they are readily available, they may not be utilized. In yet another study reported by the NIH, “several studies revealed that providers consistently underuse professional interpreters even when they are readily available, despite understanding the benefits of having them present. Doctors try to ‘get by’ because they assume that using interpreters will prolong and complicate consultations”

Two medical students at the University of California at San Francisco noted that ““Ninety percent of diagnoses come from the patient’s self-reported medical history, so the ability to communicate is critical.” Together with the San Francisco General Hospital that provides services “in more than 65 languages through a combination of staff medical interpreters, a telephone language line and a video medical interpretation system”, they came up with a medical technology solution for health care providers. 

In much the same fashion as the app developers for the DCAT referenced above, these students did not seek to provide exact medical translation services. Rather, they focused on an app that would provide a series of translated medical queries that were common to specific problems frequently encountered by the health care providers.

The name of that App is MediBabble and it is still available for free on the Apple Apps website. It should be remembered however, that this app is primarily designed with the medical health care provider in mind, and may not work so well for the average hospital patient. It is equally difficult to know just how many lives have been saved due to the success of this app, but it does serve as an excellent example of how medical translation and interpretation technologies can and do save lives.

Remote Video Medical Interpreters and Other Video Aids

According to recent research posted on the Tech Crunch website, between March fourteenth and March twenty-first in 2020, there were a record of more than sixty-two million downloads for the top videoconferencing software programs. This marked an increase of forty-five percent above the previous week which is impressive, but also marked a ninety percent increase over the downloads of the previous year.

Medical interpretation services have been reduced in terms of live interpretations, but there has been an increase in remote video interpreting services made available at the same time. The United Nations and their respective organizations like the World Health Organization, use a large number of interpreters even for small meetings.

At any of these meetings of the World Health Organization, there will be a minimum of 14 interpreters; three each for Arabic and Chinese, and two each for English, French, Russian, and Spanish. In this case, the technological solution for the issues of live medical interpretation was simple. As has been the case with many other industries, there was a mass migration of live interpreters to home based video-conferencing software so that they could continue providing remote medical interpretation services.

While these remote video medical interpretations may be more representative of the current Covid-19 global pandemic, not all crises are medical in nature. The United Nations deals with crisis situations nearly every day, and through the use of remote video interpreting services, they continue to help people around the world to avoid crises of all types, including war and other man-made disasters, in turn saving a countless number of lives.

Remote video interpretations are not the only use for video technology and other visual aids. In some cultural settings and due to religious restrictions, there are times when medically relevant facts cannot be discussed at all without causing personal or cultural offense. In such cases, films and photographs are sometimes used in a simple slideshow format in order to allow the patient to more accurately describe their symptoms and receive the necessary and proper health care and treatment.

Translation and interpretation do not always involve verbal communications as was just noted. However, no matter what the technological solution may be, and no matter what form the communications may take, concise, precise and exact communication and dialog must occur in the doctor and patient relationship. Medical translation and interpreting technology solutions allow for those conversations to take place.