On May 27th at the inaugural Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Microsoft stunned the audience with technology right out of Star Trek. Gurdeep Pall (left), who serves as Corporate Vice President of Skype and Lync at Microsoft, gave the first-ever, public live demo of an exciting new capability that is being developed for Skype. It makes possible near real-time audio translation between two people who are speaking different languages. It combines Skype voice and IM technologies with Microsoft Translator using neural network-based speech recognition. You can learn more about the research behind the technology here. As Gurdeep explained in his blog post about Skype Translator, “Skype Translator opens up so many possibilities to make meaningful connections in ways you never could before in education, diplomacy, multilingual families and in business.”
Although Gurdeep didn’t call this one out specifically, as a physician, when I saw Skype Translator in action I immediately thought of how it might be applied to patient care. Today we live in a globally connected world across geographies, cultures and languages. Visit an emergency room, trauma center, hospital or clinic in any major metropolitan area of just about any large country and what do you find? You find people from diverse cultures, many of whom speak a language that is different from that of clinical staff. When one of these patients shows up, hospital or clinic employees must scramble to find someone on staff who speaks the language of the presenting patient and can serve as an interpreter during the clinical exam. If such a person can’t be found, staff must resort to using a company that provides on-demand, and often very expensive, translation services. It’s a process that is anything but efficient.
But what if the clinical interview and evaluation could be done using Skype Translator? The clinician would ask, “Where does it hurt?” and the patient would hear the question in his or her own language. The patient would respond, and the clinician would hear the answer in his own language. “How long have you had this pain?” “What makes it better or worse?“ “Tell me about your past medical history?” “Are you taking any medications?” “Is there any family history of diabetes or cancer?” Doctor and patient could seamlessly converse during every aspect of the clinical exam.
Think of the value of such technology during other kinds of encounters that typically take place in healthcare settings; getting informed consent, pre and post surgery instructions, interactions during physical therapy, during patient discharge procedures, in follow-up clinic exams. Near real-time translation between two or more people with everyone hearing the conversation in their own native language would improve patient safety and the satisfaction of everyone involved including family members.
You can get a better understanding of how Skype Translator works by watching the video below. It’s only a matter of time before this remarkable breakthrough in technology begins to forever change how we communicate with people speaking other languages, including how we provide healthcare to people who speak languages other than our own.
Bill Crounse, MD Senior Director, Worldwide Health Microsoft
Brilliant. What I love about this technology is that it allows one to see the other persons facial expressions and gestures! Adequate and available translations services is a very challenging problem as you described in healthcare. There are so many use cases for this. Thinking about working in the ICU or ED in the middle of the night-- and needing to explain complex diagnosis, patient's condition and treatment plan... this technology would be readily available on a moments notice. Do I dare admit that I had to use a staff housekeeper or young relative of the patient? I never knew for sure whether the translation fully embraced the information we were trying to convey. I notice everyone has their headsets on. It would be great if a group of people could hear the translation at the same time, and written text for hearing impaired?
It will be really interesting to see one, whether medical terms are in this application's vocabulary, and two, whether it has the accuracy necessary for medical interpreting. Google Translate, for example, is about 80-85% accurate, which sounds great until it's your health. Obviously, that's not good enough. We'll be watching this one closely.