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Doctors Look To VoIP To Bridge Language Barriers

Call center uses voice and video over IP to connect doctors and patients with translators

A creative use of voice and video over IP is helping three California hospitals overcome increasingly common language barriers between doctors and patients.

The Health Care Interpreter Network connects doctors and patients with Spanish-language interpreters in a call center, or to people with jobs elsewhere in the hospital for less-common languages. Using consoles at nursing stations, doctors connect with an interpreter who speaks English and the language of the patient. Calls are typically answered in less than five minutes, and most are connected within 40 seconds. They're prioritized so that emergency situations jump to the top of the queue.

The network provides several interpreters who speak Spanish, the most common foreign language spoken at the hospitals. For languages including Cambodian, Hindi, Hmong, and Tongan, doctors are connected to hospital employees who speak those languages and have been trained by the network for medical interpreter services.

"This is the first time I've seen technology being used in this way to address a difficult communication problem between patient and doctors," says Markella Kordoyanni, a health industry analyst at research firm Datamonitor.

The translation network, which was designed and built by Paras & Associates, is based on Cisco's Unified Communication system. It routes about 3,000 videoconference and phone calls a month from the hospitals to the interpreters, but Paras CEO Melinda Paras says it can handle a higher volume.

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