Imagine you're writhing in pain in an ER but unable to communicate with the doctor. It happens all too frequently, as growing numbers of non-English speakers land in hospitals that lack interpreters. In response, hospitals are turning to videoconferencing systems that connect health-care workers and patients with faraway translators. Mercy Hospital in Miami unveiled a new interpreting service created by Language Access Network. A doctor will be able to call LAN's translation center in Columbus, Ohio, at any hour of the day, pick among 150 languages--including a range of Chinese dialects and American Sign Language--and gain access to an interpreter who pops up on a screen.
Other hospitals around the country have introduced similar systems. In northern California, four hospitals banded together to form the Health Care Interpreter Network, using videoconferencing equipment to share their staff interpreters. Holy Name Hospital in New Jersey, which subscribes to a service like LAN's, plans to equip ambulances with new units that will provide translation services at accident sites. Those who have used the videoconferencing technology say it's a vast improvement over telephone interpreting services, which require handing the phone back and forth and can be awkward. And the technology is cheaper than an army of staff interpreters. But most important, says Holy Name's John Hirsch, "we don't have to play charades in the hospital anymore."