Every second counts in an emergency. In everyday life, a language barrier can produce frustrating or even comical results, but in critical situations, first responders can’t rely on pantomime or guessing games to determine crucial information about non-English speaking patients’ status or medical history. Doctors at clinics and hospitals frequently use staff medical interpreters, telephone language line services, and in some cases, video medical interpretation systems to help them interact with non-English speaking patients, but emergency personnel in the field rarely have access to these language aids.
A language barrier at the scene of an emergency poses several difficulties. First of all, when emergency personnel encounter a non-English speaking victim, they automatically lose precious time in assessing the patient because of the lack of fluid communication. Even if the patient speaks some English, the likelihood exists that a first responder will misinterpret information, as a person suffering a medical emergency will probably have more difficulty than normal communicating in a second language due to the stress of the situation. Misinformation about the patient’s status could actually be more harmful than no information at all.
Interested users can now download an app version of Google Translate—one of the web’s most ubiquitous machine translation tools—that functions on Apple’s mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. In all, 64 languages are supported by the app. In addition, a speech-to-text function is supported for 17 languages, allowing for quicker and more efficient input of text to be translated, and users can listen to translations spoken aloud for 24 languages.
Machine translation may be used in a pinch until qualified interpreters can be brought to the scene or the patient can be provided professionally translated medical information, but such apps must not be considered a substitute for a professional translator or interpreter. As previously discussed on this blog [see “When Never to Use Google Translate”], machine translation has its faults and should never be the sole resource for medical translation or interpretation in life-or-death situations. Inaccurate translations delivered by an app in an emergency situation can actually do more harm than good to the patient. Ideally, instead of fiddling with their smartphones, emergency personnel (paramedics, police, etc.) should be completely free from the worry of interpreting what the patient has to say so they can focus on doing their job: administering first aid.