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Medical Translator Used Successfully 98

saskboy writes "Translations of medical questions posed by doctors to their patients were provided by a new Canadian designed computer called MedBridge. "Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese, French, and Russian," are some of the languages the MedBridge can work with. CBC reports, "If a patient is deaf, the system can also translate into American Sign Language using video. The MedBridge system is already in use at hospitals in New York, Toronto and Halifax." Pretranslated questions are stored in the computer and the doctor chooses from the list of questions to ask. It's not quite a Universal Translator, but it should improve doctor-patient communication."
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Medical Translator Used Successfully

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  • I don't understand where this would be useful. In a clinic dealing with patients who don't speak English as a first language, yes, but at the practice I go to they already have Chinese/English speaking doctors, as well as several others who are multilingual, which works fine.

    It looks useful on paper, but in reality I think it will just be an extra expense for very little return.
    • yes, but at the practice I go to they already have Chinese/English speaking doctors, as well as several others who are multilingual, which works fine.

      For most clinics, it probably is more along the lines of "cool toy" than "useful tool" but with the number of languages it supports, I could see it being more useful in a downtown clinic in a big city like New York when someone who speaks Chinese comes in and all you've got on hand is English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian.

      Personally, I'm surprised that the
      • I am guessing because ASL is somewhat international, where as written English isn't nearly as much so.
      • Actually the reason to interpret to video for ASL makes a lot of sense if you know some ASL. ASL and English are completely different and it is often hard for a person who speaks ASL as their first language to switch to reading English (thus one of the reasons for the existence of ESL, which is evil but necessary).
    • This is extremely useful if it works well. There isn't always available someone who can speak the other language, especially in rural areas. And even when a translator is available, it is often a layperson or a relative who does not have knowledge of medical terminology to adequately translate the patient's symptoms to the doctor. A patient suffering from a STD may well withhold embarassing information about his symptoms if forced to translate through a relative.
    • Re:Application? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 246o1 ( 914193 )
      It's a lot cheaper than getting a staff of multilingual doctors, and while it would have to be quickly available in emergency situations, it could be very useful in rural applications.

      If it's expense is a drawback, then several rural hospitals could get one together, and then when someone made an appointment and requested translation services, they could make sure it was at the right hospital on the right day.

      This is a good practical application of translation software in a situation with clear context and
    • I work in a small office not far outside NYC. We have a staff around 60. I've overheard the following languages, spoken by fluent speakers, from my co-workers:


      There are two guys that speak Farsi, but I haven't heard them talk to each other in anything but English.

      We're a small segment of the population. Those same people speak English with varying degrees of fluency. Good luck finding a practice that has doctors who speak all those languages
    • This system is developed here in Canada. In Canada we have public health care so we don't have Chinese people going to Chinese clinics and English people going to English clinic, the majority of people go to the English/French hospitals which are free for everyone. In large multi-cultural cities like Toronto and Montreal this would be very useful.

      If you're looking for applications outside of Canada, think of the Red Cross and thier emergency relief efforts. If an earthquake happens in Pakistan would you o

      • Not to bash people who don't speak english, and live in an english country, but I would like to know how they get around in day to day life. I find that knowing how to speak the language spoken by everyone else is important. If I were to move to a country that spoke a different language, I would make every effort possible to learn that language. I took a trip to Quebec, and feel completely helpless because I don't speak french as well as I would like to. How do people carry on their day-to-day lives, wi
        • In the large multicultural cities its common to find all sorts of little subcommunities arranged by culture. So people in China Town or Little Italy or some other community can get by speaking only their mother tongue. Of course everyone has to know at least some English to read traffic signs etc. but for things like legal advice or medical attention I think they would be more at ease in their native language.
    • Yeah. Never thought I'd completely disagree, but I completely disagree. Patients get admitted to hospitals when they get sick. They don't have the choice on going to one where doctors may or may not speak their language. A heart attack happens when a heart attack happens and a patient will be sent to a hospital, where doctors will all of the sudden be forced to make minute to minute decisions based on the answers a patient gives. Where's the pain? What's the character of the pain? Does it radiate? What make
    • Some clinics may happen to have doctors and nurses who speak the languages of their clientele, but communication between patients and medical staff is a significant problem in the United States. I had a post [] about this on Language Log a while back that contains links to other information. There are large numbers of patients who do not speak English well and cannot make use of a clinic whose staff speak their language. That may be because they speak a language that is not well enough represented in the US.

    • This device will become very useful as hundreds of thousands of Americans go abroad to get health care needs met. The Medical Industry in the USA is in meltdown from greed and stupidity. Millions of people have no health care access at all and tens of millions of working-people (like you and me) have only limited access to medicial care.

      To meet their needs for major surgery and so forth, they will be going to other countries with more rational health care services. Some doctors in these pl
    • I don't understand where this would be useful. In a clinic dealing with patients who don't speak English as a first language, yes, but at the practice I go to they already have Chinese/English speaking doctors, as well as several others who are multilingual, which works fine.

      Many hospitals, especially in larger cities, already have paid medical translators on hand - so the need for this type of service is pre-established.

      Furthermore, human translators are highly expensive (salary, training, benefits,
    • It's application will be in outsourced customer service, of which medicine is only a subset. Buy stock now!
  • Would it not be easier to translate the spoken words into text?

    • I was thinking the same thing, but remember not everyone who is deaf will know how to read and write.
      • are there really people who know american sign language but don't know how to read english? (ps-this is an actual question as i have no idea about that kind of stuff)
        • I can't say I know anyone who is like that, but ASL is a bit of a world standard, so if you're French and deaf, you still might learn ASL and not read and write English. French is a language in the translator so they'd be in luck if the person is literate, but what about people who aren't? In theory it's possible, and such a case was brought up on a Canadian crime drama called This is Wonderland where a person in a courtroom could only sign some type of language but indicated he couldn't read.
          • while ASL is a world standard, there are many forms of it. In fact, even canada and the usa use different forms of ASL. If i am correct, the base language is still the same, so it IS possible for a chinese person who uses ASL to understand the canadian form. Again though, its another hurdle. and what about people who only know ESL? yes, its fading out, but it is much easier to find an actual person to translate from ASL rather then ESL. Maybe our little machine should do that.
        • Yes and no. I doubt it would have a big effect on the types of sentences here since they'd probably be short. But more generally, English literacy levels among people born deaf are actually pretty low. ASL constructions are entirely different from English (in fact, ALS supposedly has more gramattical structures in common with French than English, though there are still probably more differences than similarities) and there definitely isn't a one-to-one correspondence of words.

          (This is what we were taught in
        • Yes there are. It used to be a lot more common when the deaf and the mute were not well accommodated in American education systems, but I would put money that there are still a good number. Especially in other countries. ASL is used in many places besides North America, such as the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Haiti, The Ivory Coast, Ghana, Congo, Kenya, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe
    • Sadly, there is a high degree of functional illiteracy among those people who are born deaf in this country. From what I understand, a lot of the problem is that American Sign Language is not based on English, so the grammatical structures are completely different.

      Seems sad to me, though. Imagine being that completely locked out of our culture's discourse... I can imagine being deaf, and I can imagine being illiterate, but I can not imagine being both at the same time.

      • The reason for the illiteracy has mostly to do with the fact that ASL is not English with signs (that would be Signed Exact English SEE) but is in fact a completely distinct language with it's own grammatical structure. For a deaf person to sign ASL and read English is like me speaking and thinking in English and reading in Hindi (or other language where the grammatical structure is significantly different from English).

        The more amazing thing is so many deaf people are so capably bi-lingual.

  • When do we get the machine that can read a doctor's handwriting?
  • by Kelz ( 611260 )
    No WoW speak? Its the only language some idiots know! U GOT PWNED HEALZ INC
  • this translator []

    Your dog wants a cure for cancer now.
  • Just because a patient can understand your words doesn't mean that they know what you're asking about. Some people speak English and still manage to get something very different out of a conversation than what was said, and if the patient is simply answering questions to please the doctor then it doesn't matter what language it's in. Cultural competency is as important as language, maybe more, and we've all seen what happens when literal translations go awry (the Clairol "mist stick" comes to mind). And
  • Where are all the moderators?
  • If the patient only speaks Mandarin and the doctor only speaks english, what translates the patients response? This system is not useful if the response cannot be understood. Perhaps all the questions are just yes/no answers...
  • Reminds me ... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kadin2048 ( 468275 ) <slashdot.kadin@x[ ].net ['oxy' in gap]> on Wednesday March 01, 2006 @10:48PM (#14832320) Homepage Journal
    This reminds me a little of a system that I saw, when I was working in the E.D. in a local hospital a while back.

    They had a live translation service that worked through a "red phone" (it wasn't really red, but it was a dedicated, pick-up-to-talk phone) that connected to a bank of live translators. You picked up the phone and entered codes for what languages you wanted it to translate to and from, say English to Catalan, and it would route you to an operator that could do that translation. Then the patient picked up the other handset, or you put it on speaker, and away you went. I assume the hospital got a fat bill at the end of the month for every use. I always thought this was a pretty slick system, because the translators could be anywhere. I don't know how they handled it in reality, but I had visions of operators sitting around their kitchens or in small callcenters worldwide, with the computer routing them calls when ones in languages whenever they were available.

    Granted, I never saw anyone actually use this system, so I can't vouch for it in practice. But conceptually it struck me as being pretty cool.

    The point that TFA makes about colloquialisms is right on, however. Even a human translator doesn't take this all out. A good story is one I heard from an EMT friend of mine. He got called to the scene of an older person who had lost consciousness and was unresponsive. When there, he tried to get a history from the wife: she kept saying "He fell out! He just fell out!" And nobody had any idea what she meant. Fell out of where? Of a window? Of a car? Of his chair? Was there a possible head injury? The possibilities were endless.

    Turns out, "falling out" is apparently a direct translation of the Quebecois term for "passing out" or "fainting." The lady was just stating the obvious -- the guy had passed out. To the woman, it made perfect sense, but to the EMTs, it didn't. And this was with two people, in person, speaking the same language, with one native speaker and one very competent second-language speaker. Even with human translators, unless you selected them not only for languages, but also for dialect and regionalisms, I could see this being a big problem. (And potentially a lot more serious than my example.) With a machine, the number of problems must skyrocket.

    That said, I still think it's a neat development, and I'm sure it'll be an asset for hospitals in areas where the staff can't keep up with the diverse and ever-changing language requirements of their patients.
    • Reminds me a lot of a handheld system currently in limited use with the military called the Phrasealator, developed by Applied Data Systems. It's got a bunch of various language packs available for it, and the gist of it is that you speak a question into it (e.g, "Have you seen insurgents nearby?") and after a little A/D conversion and fuzzy matching, would find a corresponding phrase in the target language. The handheld then plays a voice recording of that phrase.

      The device is geared for yes/no questions,
      • "Have you seen insurgents nearby?"

        (A/D conversion and fuzzy matching)

        "OTTERS. GO. WILD. IN. MY. PANTS."
      • I asked one veteran E.R. doc about the language situation in hospitals and he said it just wasn't that big a deal because often times the whole family would show up in the E.R., and someone in the bunch would be the terp. But that's just one data point.
        When I was taking ASL courses, our teacher shared her own story about that. Due to vagaraies of genetics and the like, both she and her grandmother were deaf and had therefore learned sign language. The rest of the family, for whatever reason, had not. The
      • My wife is from South America, with her mother also living her in the States. When her mother was recently hospitalized, she related an interesting conversation she overheard between a doctor and another Hispanic patient.

        Apparently, the doctor wanted the patient to scootch her butt over a little on the bed. Because of the large number of Columbians working at the hospital, he'd picked up some Spanish, and was trying it out.

        Unfortunately, he didn't realize just *what kind* of language he'd picked up, and wou
    • My extended family includes 3 seniors ranging from 64 to 93 years old, all with very rudimentary (if any) English skills. The most convenient thing that we have done when they've had to be in emergency or when admitted is to make a little cheat sheet of common phrases and questions.

      "I am thirsty."
      "I want to phone home."
      "My ____ hurts."

      I've often thought about a software alternative but it always seems too inconvenient and a barrier to those who aren't too technical in the first place.

      Usually this sheet
    • A few years ago when I practiced in Minnesota, the hospital had a contract with AT&T. You simply dialed an 800 number, mentioned which language you needed, and in about 30 seconds, you had someone medically knowledgeable on the speakerphone fluent in English and the desired language. Spanish was the most common, but Somali, Chinese and occasionally other languages were needed. Didn't matter what time of day or night. I don't see a computer changing that any time soon. It was wonderful, but expensive
    • The point that TFA makes about colloquialisms is right on, however. Even a human translator doesn't take this all out.

      If you want another example, I have one from Norway/Sweden. We speak a rather similar language, and many Swedish nurses come to work in Norway. One word that has created some interesting fuck-ups is "glasögon" - "glassøye" (swedish and norwegian respectively). In english, eyeglasses vs glass eye. Miiiiiinor difference.
    • Yah, down here in the rural South of the USA, the phrase is "done fell out". It is so commonly accepted that it is an unoffical radio code (DFO). We also have cases where grandma gets "the vapors" - meaning anything from "she fainted" to "she has bad gas" to "she's got gas gangrene in her diabetic feet".

      And don't get me started on "high blood". High blood WHAT? Pressure, sugar, alcohol, ARRRGGH . . .

      Rural North Florida Paramedic (volunteer)
      Geekery unfortunately pays the bills so much better
  • ...and cut the doctor out of the loop altogether?

    What happened to those expert systems that seemed so promising in the 70s and 80s? I don't believe a doctor can weigh up the range of symptoms that a patient might have, and the even bigger range of symptoms that a patient doesn't have, more reliably than a machine, in order to make an assessment of the probability of the patient having any particular disease. MYCIN [] is one that comes to mind but there were others. I was under the impression that they had pe

    • ...stopped them.
      who do you sue if an expert system advises something that has an adverse event?
  • From the article:
    which also allows the patients to see the words on the screen in their own language.
    If a patient is deaf, the system can also translate into American Sign Language using video.

    What's the point of video sign language? You could just read the words off the screen... seems a trifle pointless.

    And does this system just show text, or can it actually pronounce it? (This could be an issue in countries where the literacy rate isn't too high, if say US doctors are doing disaster relief.)
    • The problem is ASL is it's own language. I know what you're thinking: "you're just saying that so deaf people will feel comfortable"; In fact whoever worked to create/spread ASL wasn't thinking about cultural effects. ASL uses a dictionary (lexicon) that is almost identical to English, but it's grammar patterns are all mixed up. So, even if a deaf person developed the ability to read english words, they would still have significant trouble understanding English sentences.

      Honestly I dont think this syste
    • This could be an issue in countries where the literacy rate isn't too high, if say US doctors are doing disaster relief.
      And that's why America's a great country - both of those are available without even travelling abroad.
  • CAN it convert medical mumbo-jumbo into english?
  • While I think this is very useful, I think that there are quite a few simplier solutions out there. I have for many years kept many print outs in different languages of common medical questions and terms to work with patients. The other part is that having someone speak the language is still much more effective, yes there are plenty of languages that present at a hospital that it is not feesible to have a translator for, but at the same time someone that knows their language might also have a better under
    • Thats the system thats mostly used here in Japan. We've got some municipal resources for an emergency translator for medical emergencies (the commonly needed ones are Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and English, in something approaching that order... unfortunately, to my knowledge we don't have anyone qualified to actually speak Chinese or Korean in the municipal government). For routine care we've got these lovely cards which are produced by the prefecture. It looks like a fold out map which has those four
  • I used to work for a large Boston Mass. teaching hospital complex, which had a shared translators department. Getting to know a few of them their requirements were quite impressive. They had to be familiar with anatomy, diagnostic procedures, hospital procedures, & pharmaceuticals in both English and their supported language(s).

    I've also been an Anglophone living in rural Quebec using local medical facilities, where the medical staff was not at all comfortable working in English (and please not the ol

  • I can clearly see the benefit of such device for clinicians who practice in metropolitan areas (like NYC). My university hospital is situated in a highly hispanic concentrated area (Washington Heights) and there is always a requirement for a spanish speaking nurse on the floor. The university also gives free language tutorials for medical students. Hell I have seen several physicians putting language skills on top of their resume to get a job the our hospital.

    I havent RTFA, but the last I heard (a week ago
    • If you'd read the FSummary you'd see that it doesn't guess it has pretranslated selections. So the doctor picks the word for PENIS SORE from his list, and the computer knows the best way to phrase PENIS SORE in Cantonese or whatever. It takes out the babelfish aspect errors in most cases except where dialects come in.

      "Remove your gitch and show me your trouser trout" might not be in the list for the doctor to choose though.
  • i know i run in to this occasionally. i speak conversational Japanese, but i grew up primarily in the US, and have my medical degree in the US. i can talk about the weather without a problem, but if i try to describe anatomy or a medical condition, i'm stuck. actually, part of my job as a physician for regular english speakers is to translate Medical terms to everyday english. i find that that can clear up alot of anxiety for everyone.

    a medical translater must not only translate the exact word, but mus
  • I find it difficult to believe some of the comments here...

    How many people here have actually been to a hospital overseas, where the odds of someone speaking your language well enough for you to understand are quite slim, or perhaps in a country where your mastery of the language is questionable at best? I have, and let me tell you - it's no fun. The usual jumpiness that accompanies any trip to the hospital is magnified about 10 fold. I would have loved to have access to a device like this one. It's not
  • by rupert0 ( 885882 )
    Why don't we all just learn esperanto ? :-P
  • Since many years there are the Maritime Flag signals, usualy a sequence starting with an 'M' (Mike) denotes a Medical condition.

    Mike Kilo Foxtrot is one that comes to mind...

  • I don't want to be a troll but living in Toronto I find it frustrating to have people around me who can barely speak English and who have already been in this country for 5+ years. One of my friends parents came to Canada from China 16 or so years ago and still find it hard to speak English. I find that a lot of people come to Canada, settle into a community that has people speaking their native language, and never really bother to learn English. I think people should be encouraged to learn and speak Englis

  • That sounds like just a point-and-click set of canned questions and multiple choice responses. There are better things.

    Speech-to-speech translators and universal dictionaries are getting pretty good these days. These guys [] make one.
  • I live in Halifax, we're a fairly large tourist city, and I can definately see where this helps for us. We can't always guarantee that we have medical staff that can speak most languages known to man, so a computer program may offer some insight into diagnosos of the patient.
  • Babelfish did this one entirely for me: Original: "Did you say you wanted to have your kidney removed?" Translated to Chinese (and back): "You said you thought the edible your kidney is removen?"
  • Looks like a nice little toy. It'll certainly help smaller hospitals and clinics where they may not have a multilingual staff. Using pre-selected sentences allows for a small amount of "cultural competency" in the translation since I doubt each translation is 100% literal. It's still no substitute for a multilingual and culturally aware medical staff, however. For those who are curious about this cultural competency "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down", by Anne Fadiman to see how mor
  • ... and other unrestricted automated translators.

    Restricting the syntax to the domain of medical terms makes the job a whole lot easier, and would eliminate oodles of ambiguities.
  • I helped design a similar web based system a couple of years ago. See it at [].
  • You know, I can see instances where a machine like this could be useful. Not as useful as a translator on staff, or a translation service that someone else mentioned in a previous post.

    It is no wonder though, with all the technology being pushed into the medical field, how expensive health insurance has gotten. New technology like this sounds great, but is never around long enough to turn a profit, and is outdated within a week. It is one of those cases where there may be an advantage to technological gr
  • These translators are not going to ever produce translations at quality anywhere human translations until they can properly account for context. The best way to do this as I see it is through knowledge representation via a neural network (i.e., adaptive resonance theory).

Promising costs nothing, it's the delivering that kills you.