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Video Conferencing Resuscitates Hospitals' Interpreter Services


Talk is cheap, unless it's helping doctors and nurses treat non-English-speaking patients in hospital emergency rooms and clinics. Then, it's a critical capability that can help save lives.

Just ask the IT staff at San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp, Calif. They're hosting an innovative voice-over-IP (VoIP) system that provides audio- and videoconferencing to connect interpreters with patients at a trio of Northern California public hospitals. The system, called the Health Care Interpreter Network (HCIN), relies on a pair of Cisco Systems call center products, several types of video phones, and a Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network to provide shared translation services to the medical professionals and patients at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, the San Mateo Medical Center and San Joaquin General.

The first technology-based interpretation system of its kind anywhere, HCIN delivers two key benefits, according to Ken Cohen, San Joaquin General's director of health services. First, it reduces by half the cost of providing interpreters in the admitting, emergency and clinical environments at the three hospitals. Second, it significantly enhances the quality of medical care the patients receive, Cohen says.

The project was funded by a $500,000 federal grant divided among the hospitals. Cohen calls the $180,000 his hospital received for its share of the overall HCIN project "frankly, a small investment." Small, that is, considering San Joaquin General's $250 million annual budget, the 160,000-plus patients it treats each year, and the fact that 60 percent to 70 percent of those patients speak little or no English, Cohen says.

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