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AI-Powered Video Interpretation Translates Vital Health Information in a Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged healthcare and technology professionals to develop and adapt solutions for the fast-changing health crisis. A special problem arises when more than one language needs to be supported. Telemedicine, also called telehealth, remotely provides medical interpretation via video to connect healthcare professionals with patients and their families. We will explore solutions powered by Artificial Intelligence, Video Remote Interpreting, and Machine Translation services. With the crisis, many of these capabilities are coalescing in a new vertical dubbed Virtual Interpretation Technology (VIT).

Problems with interpreting face-to-face in this pandemic


In the United States, Europe, and other developed multicultural societies, access to health information in an understandable language is considered a fundamental human right. In the US, that right was established formally in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination based on national origin, which the Supreme Court subsequently ruled was applicable to language differences and disabilities. In the US and elsewhere, patients have the rights to access health information in a language they speak and understand.

In response, healthcare providers have been compelled to employ translation and interpretation services to support this legal obligation and provide patients with the information they deserve. Larger hospitals were able to employ on-site interpreters and translators for commonly needed languages, such as Spanish in the United States and Arabic in Western Europe. In other cases, they employed external service providers. However, the infectious nature of the novel coronavirus and the subsequent quarantines and lockdowns resulting from it have made face-to-face interpretation impossible in many cases. Furthermore, less common languages are impractical and uneconomical to deliver.

Over the Phone, Interpretation to translate vital health information

Over the Phone Interpretation (OPI) has been available for decades. External service providers or employees in remote locations would provide by appointment interpretation services via telephone so that healthcare providers could communicate effectively with patients and their families.

While that service was often better than nothing, it turns out that certain patient groups have difficulty with the telephone as a communication medium. Children and older people, especially, have discomfort and comprehension difficulties receiving complex information over the phone. The result can be misunderstood diagnoses and prognoses, as in the kids’ game of telephone. In addition, in the context of infectious diseases, the telephone poses risks and complications due to the need for healthcare professionals and patients to be present in the same place, even if the interpreter is in an external location.

An additional context in which OPI is less than ideal is in the interpretation of press conferences and hospital briefings. Especially in a public health crisis, there is a need to rapidly disseminate vital information to all sectors of the public, including those groups which speak a different language. While “signers” are often present for the hard of hearing, interpreters for minority languages are rarely provided. At most a second language spokesperson is added, rarely more. Phone interpretation is cumbersome and unworkable.

Video Remote Interpretation and Machine Translation comes to the rescue

With the vast improvement in video technology and increasing communication bandwidth over the past decades, Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) has increasingly become the solution of choice for bridging language gaps in health and medicine. With the ubiquity of smartphones and flat screens, it is increasingly practical and economical to connect multiple points and people in a multimode video conference.

General-purpose videoconferencing has long been a staple of everyday business and social life. Platforms like (Microsoft) Skype, (Google) Hangouts and Meet, and Messaging apps like WhatsApp and FaceTime have become commodities, usually free or at a nominal cost, connecting friends, family members, and colleagues. What has been missing, at least till recently, is a seamless solution for integrating the translation and interpretation services component to bridge the gap between speakers who lack a common language.

One critical case usage of VRI is in a hospital emergency room and in ambulances. In these settings, it is critical that healthcare professional patients and caregivers communicate fluently and without delay with medical personnel, without waiting for face-to-face interpreters. Hospitals and first-responders with VRI capability can loop in a remote interpreter, performing intake surveys and triage without delay or misunderstanding.

VRI has evolved considerably over the past decade or so, starting with policy and emergency services. From June 2011, police in Windsor, Ontario successfully piloted a VRI service in its 911 call center, which became a model to care for residents with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in Canada. In the United States, where some 8% of the population is affected by LEP, similar programs have been deployed throughout the nation. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Services is also using VRI for deaf clients, with sign language communicated remotely by video.

The evolution of AI-powered VRI as a solution for conferences and emergencies

More recently, Artificial Intelligence is enhancing telehealth (telemedicine) is disrupting the value chain of patient care delivery by offering innovative models of healthcare support.

Benefits of AI-powered VRI include:

  • Improved diagnostics for remote screening, specifically for COVID-19 symptoms, determining whether a patient should stay or home or come to a clinic or hospital.
  • Better remote monitoring for eldercare, facilitating communications, and observation of symptoms for senior citizens who have mobility, speaking and hearing issues.
  • Enhanced one-to-many conferencing and briefings, simultaneously interpreting via videoconference.

Telehealth-focused service providers have arisen to supply VRI services on demand. Healthcare human resources giant AMN Healthcare Services in January 2020 propitiously acquired Stratus Video, a leading VRI provider, for a cool $475 million. AMN’s CEO Susan Salka, on CNBC, said the purchase would enable the firm to provide remote diagnostics for the virus. “We quickly pivoted and added capabilities so that our clients could use that platform for COVID-19 triage purposes,” so that clinicians “wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the same room with their patients….”

AI is used to route calls to available interpreters within minutes. Nimdzi reports that there is high demand among corporates for virtual interpretation apps like KUDO and VoiceBoxer. VIT providers like Interpreter.io and Boostlingo report that business is booming as clients pivot from onsite to remote interpretation services, on-demand rather than pre-scheduled. As the pandemic persists, and remote communications replace face-to-face, these trends are likely to continue. AI-powered VRI can only grow to meet the growing demand and ensure that vital health information is not lost in translation.

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