Posted by: sbilingual | November 25, 2011

App eases patient, provider language barriers


Two medical students turned their 2 a.m. frustration into an app to help communicate with non-English speaking patients.

Two medical students turned their 2 a.m. frustration into an app to help communicate with non-English speaking patients.

Imagine what it would be like if you were ill or in pain and, no matter how you tried to explain, you couldn’t get the physician to understand what was wrong? Frustrating, right? It can be just as frustrating for a health care provider, wanting to help, wanting to understand, wanting to give care to a patient.

That’s how a new mobile app, MediBabble, was born. Fourth-year medical student Brad Cohn had had a really tough night. As he assisted a diverse group of patients on his shift at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), none of them spoke English.

Over a 2 a.m. cup of coffee, Cohn shared his frustration with fellow student Alex Blau.

An article on UCSF’s website says SFGH offers assistance in more than 65 languages through staff medical interpreters, a telephone language line, and a video medical interpretation system, with real-time access to providers and patients within four minutes.

At night and on weekends, though, staffing is reduced and the waits can be longer.

“Ninety percent of diagnoses come from the patient’s self-reported medical history, so the ability to communicate is critical,” Blau says. “Time is not an asset doctors or patients have. You need that information when you need it.”

The duo knew what they’d like to have—a software app for a PDA or an iPhone—one to translate medical history questions from English into other languages.

Eventually, Cohn and Blau whipped up just what the doctor ordered. It took them three years, their own money, and a lot of help from others at UCSF, but in April, the mobile translation software, MediBabble hit the iTunes Store. It’s already been downloaded 5,000 times, was declared a “must-have” app by , the premiere mobile health application review site, and voted number one in the 2011 Medical App Awards on Scrubdin.

The app translates more than 2,500 questions into five languages:

  • Cantonese
  • Haitian Creole
  • Mandarin
  • Spanish
  • Russian

In a YouTube video, Cohn explains why the app includes the languages it does. The original languages were selected based on the San Francisco patient population, but as they worked on the app, the Haitian earthquake struck. Cohn and Blau knew MediBabble could help health care providers providing disaster relief there, so Haitian Creole was added.

What makes the app particularly appealing to those working in remote areas, disaster settings, or within the non-Internet conducive walls of many hospitals is that it doesn’t require an Internet connection once it is downloaded to an iPhone or iPad.

Blau explains how their environment helped them in meeting this need.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky, specifically here at UCSF, to have access to the resources that we do here,” Blau says. “I don’t think it would be possible to put together this kind of project without having the support that we’ve had from our colleagues.”

It’s free

In recognition of the collaboration which made MediBabble possible, Cohn and Blau decided to offer the software free. It’s also a way they can help their fellow medical students, doctors, nurses, and paramedics worldwide—people who, Cohn says “need it most.”

The app is already finding its way to remote corners of the world, and requests are coming in for translation into additional languages. Next up are French, German, Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic.

“This has been a real life education on how we can bring technological resources to bear for treating patients, for improving their condition, and for hopefully beating disease,” Cohn says. “And we’re really lucky to be here in this moment when this is being developed, because maybe we can be part of this sweeping change— because it’s going to change health care, like it’s changed the rest of the world.”

MediBabble and social media

If health care providers in your organization use MediBabble, they can follow it on Twitter.

MediBabble is on Facebook, too, but we wonder if people know it. We can’t help but think the 56 likes we see today are but a drop in the bucket compared to the people using it to communicate with their patients.

How do health care providers in your organization communicate with those who speak different languages? Have you tried MediBabble or another type of translation app?

To find out how Bilingual Resources Group can support your interpretation, translation and bilingual staffing needs, please call 504-253-0364 or visit


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