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New language app to help migrant patients in Australian hospitals

Doctor Source: Getty Images

Using the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Assist iPad app, patients are asked basic questions in their home languages, which helps clinicians understand their needs.

For patients whose English is not their first language, communicating with clinicians can be a major challenge.

But the CSIRO* has helped develop an app that offers hope that waiting times can be reduced for patients when they may only need to ask a simple question.

Technology is being used to help health professionals in Victoria better communicate with, and care for, their patients who would otherwise need an interpreter on hand.

Using the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Assist iPad app, patients are asked basic questions in their home languages, which helps clinicians understand their needs.

The manager of speech pathology and audiology at Western Health, Sally Brinkmann, says even elderly patients who may not be familiar with technology can be comfortable with it -  "So we choose a language, and we have the written words in their language, and also in English, and we also have photographs and video images as well. But it has a voice-over, so, people who aren't familiar with technology, it's got the question asked in their language but the photographs to support that as well. So it gives them all the information that they need, even if they're not used to the technology."

But it is not something completely new to some.

For example, an 80-year-old Vietnamese migrant named Le says her children already use it at home.

Her interpreter, Mai Dinh, who works at Sunshine Hospital in Melbourne's west, says the app helps patients who could face long waiting times if a matter is not urgent.

And she says it helps interpreters as well - "We're really, really busy in the hospital, especially with Vietnamese language. This would, I think, help us when we're very busy and we can't come to the patient straightaway. And the patient can still communicate basic needs to the staff so they can be helped."

Mai Dinh says patients can wait anywhere from an hour up to half a day for an interpreter at a hospital.

Seasoned Hindi language expert and interpreter at a Melbourne hospital, Anushree Jain feels that such apps can sometimes create more trouble for both doctors and patients.

Anushree Jain
Anushree Jain

The app currently translates 10 languages and is understood by 80 per cent of the non-English speaking patients in the region where it is being used.

Western Health speech pathologist Courtney Pocock says she saw how helpful it can be to know several words in other languages after working with an Italian patient with dementia - "I think that it really helps with some of those basic conversations, so that you can go up, patients have that opporunity to answer some questions, and you can get some of those really key questions answered so that you can provide the best care."

Anushree Jain says that the problem areas in communication between a medical specialist and patient from non-English background are the use of technical terms and expression.

The state government is providing funding to help health projects expand, such as using the app.

Victorian health minister Jill Hennessy (AAP)
Victorian health minister Jill Hennessy (AAP)

State health minister Jill Hennessy says it will drive improvements in the health system - "We're really hopeful that we're going to be able to roll this out right across the health system. We're currently working with the CSIRO, who helped develop the app, to look at where we might be able to have it downloadable on phones, for example, which could mean that every health worker in the state could be able to access this really important innovation."

Anushree Jain agrees with health minister Jill Hennessy but suggests that in future for successful implementation of such initiatives, language service interpreters should be taken in the loop to develop such apps.