Adherence and translation: Breaking the language barrier
Andrew Tolve explores how sharing information in languages other than English can foster better communication within patient groups and disease areas
Medical advances have always come slowly to Kyzyl-Suu, a remote village in eastern Kyrgyzstan.
Snow-capped, 14,000-foot peaks scrape against the sky, forming a stark barrier to the capital city of Bishkek, let alone distant Western Europe and the United States.
The Internet, when available, provides little help.
Most clinical research and best practice methods are published in English, while most people here speak only Russian.
Myrzakhat Imanaliev, director of the local anti-tuberculosis rehabilitation center, found a solution this year when he attended a training session with Health Connections International (HCI), a non-profit that uses technology to overcome the physical and linguistic barriers in resource-limited places like Kyzyl-Suu.
The organization’s main platform, My Health Connections, allows registered clinicians to log in and pose questions in their native tongues.
Those questions are then translated into English, answered by an international expert, and re-translated into the original language—for the whole clinical community’s benefit.
At the training session, Imanaliev learned about the platform and received PCs and IT equipment to make his center a focal point for other clinicians in the region.
“One of the failures from the international community, particularly in North America and Western Europe, is that we often forget that most of the world doesn’t speak English,” says Vanessa Fuller, HCI’s head of research and development.
“If we can recognize that and make materials that will improve our ability to distribute information and treat diseases, we’ll go a long way toward achieving the [United Nation’s] millennium development goals.”
The great language divide
More than 35.5 million Americans speak Spanish as their primary language at home, and only half of those self-identify themselves as good English speakers.
In the US alone, there is a microcosm of the global challenge: People need healthcare solutions and yet many don’t speak English, the primary language in which those solutions are broadcast and delivered.
The Internet has exacerbated the divide.
As ever more information is published online, those patients who can read that information benefit, while those who can’t become further disempowered.
Clinicians, as the case study of Kyzyl-Suu demonstrates, fall prey to this divide as well.
In the past few years, Web-based solutions like My Health Connections have finally started to address the problem.
Health Connections International has rolled out the platform in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and, with the proper funding, would like to expand throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, as well as into Africa and Latin America.
“Our experience from the Russian language region would be incredibly helpful in how to adapt harm-reduction, best-practice methods in dealing with HIV as well as other epidemics, such as hepatitis,” says Fuller.
Enabling communication between patients and physicians who speak different languages is another obvious area of need.
Automated translation tools can help.
Berkeley-California-based Spoken Translation has created Converser for Healthcare, which translates bi-directional conversations between English-speaking healthcare professionals and Spanish-speaking patients.
To avoid confusion, the tool provides a translation of the translation, so healthcare professionals and patients can verify accuracy themselves.
Spoken Translation plans to roll out Converser for Healthcare in more languages in the coming years and hopes to make the tool capable of automated chat translations.
As for longer documents and material that’s already been published in English, a company out of New York City, SpeakLike, has developed a translation software system that harnesses the power of crowdsourcing.
When a request for a translation comes in, the system sends it out to a large crowd of certified translators online, one of whom accepts the task and returns it faster than traditional translation services can.
“Clients were having to wait weeks for content and, when it finally arrived, it was outdated after just four days,” says Sanford Cohen, founder and CEO of SpeakLike.
“So they needed a way to speed the process up.”
With SpeakLike, companies can get their documents expertly translated within a 24-hour window for a fraction of the cost.
The pharma opportunity
Helping to break the language barrier offers pharma companies a number of opportunities.
On the most basic level, the more clinicians and patients are able to converse, the better products are used and the healthier people become.
From Fuller’s perspective, “Pharmaceutical companies should have a vested interest in making healthcare providers aware of the best possible treatment protocols that are available.”
To that end, Merck has partnered with HCI to develop a continuing medical education program.
The program focuses on distance learning modules that help deliver the best treatment protocols to the most remote locations, like mountain-locked Kyzyl-Suu.
By embracing translation solutions, pharma companies can also foster better communication within patient groups and disease areas.
Recently Eurordis, an organization that unites rare disease patients across Europe, integrated SpeakLike into its website, so that whenever a patient in, say, Greece wants to be able to read a post published by someone in, say, France, that request automatically gets sent through the SpeakLike system, and the post is quickly translated.
Pharma companies can sponsor these sorts of translation solutions, thereby making the networks that use their products stronger.
Finally, pharma companies can directly employ translation services to make their materials available in near real time in multiple languages.
Solutions like SpeakLike can plug into a website or a blog, ensuring that new posts are translated into the desired range of languages.
“The idea of having an automated process that makes translated material available in 30 minutes would be a huge benefit to pharmaceutical companies that are trying to have another level of communication with their customer base,” says Cohen.
For everything tech- and patient-related, join the industry’s other key players at Mobile Strategies for Pharma on Dec. 1-2 in London.