Roving iPads and on-screen translators improve communication between patients and medical staff at Fountain Valley hospital

Sep 5, 2019

Expectant mom Thanh Tuyen Vu was recently diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Triggered by pregnancy, the condition is, in most cases, temporary.

On a recent morning, Vu sat down with a registered nurse at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital to learn how to check her blood sugar level and manage her diet.

Of course, she had a lot of questions: Do I need to wait a certain amount of time after eating before testing my blood? What is a normal glucose level? What should I do if my reading is too high?

Diabetes educator Nanelle Petrocik walked Vu through the process: Here is how you insert the strip into the glucose meter, here is how you prick your finger, here is how you dispose of the lancet.

Between them, hovered a third person. Virtually dropping in from an office in Houston, a translator named Tim seamlessly converted Vu’s words to English and Petrocik’s to Vietnamese.

Last summer, Fountain Valley Regional began transitioning away from the now old-fashioned method of translating conversations via telephone. So far, the hospital has acquired 38 iPad-based systems to now facilitate translation.

About one-third of the hospital’s patients are not fluent in English, said spokeswoman Jessica Chen. Of the patients who prefer translators, 45 percent speak Vietnamese, 43 percent Spanish, 7 percent Mandarin and the rest other languages.

Mounted on a pedestal atop a cart, the iPads can be rolled around wherever needed at the 400-bed facility. A staff member contacts a translating service and, for common languages, an interpreter pops onto the screen within seconds.

Less requested languages – chosen from a long list including Mizo, Trique, Garre and Grebo – may take longer.

As with Skype or FaceTime, everyone can see each other as they speak. This allows the translator to witness a nurse’s demonstration, a billing assistant’s computer screen or a doctor’s procedure.

Also, with the new system, the patient can make eye contact with the translator.

“When she can see him, she can better communicate, versus only talking to him on the phone,” Petrocik said. “And I can better monitor her interactions: ‘OK, she gets it.’”

Vu agreed that the face-to-face meeting worked well. “This is the first time I’ve seen this system,” she said through the translator. “It makes me feel less worried. I can pick up on the details.”

Vu moved to Garden Grove from Vietnam a year ago, joining her husband Thong Nguyen. They have a two-year old son, Ryo.

“Usually, I have to go with her to appointments to translate,” said Nguyen, a lab technician who has lived in the United States for four years. “This gives her more independence.”

As she speaks, Petrocik makes it a point to look at the patient rather than the translator. “That way, it’s more natural and conversational,” she said. “The screen is not my patient.”

Ultimately, the roving iPads are a relatively low-tech solution in the high-tech world of medicine.

“It’s just an iPad, and it’s just an on-screen conversation,” said Laura Garcia, director of Fountain Valley Regional’s diabetes program. “Everyone is already familiar with this technology. Yet it’s a huge benefit to our patients and staff.”

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