New prescription: a handheld medical interpreting device

  • Article by: MEGAN NICOLAI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2011 - 10:15 PM

A Duluth start-up company has a high-tech solution to language barriers that can be life-threatening.

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Mat Johnson, founder and CEO of GeaCom Inc., holds the Phrazer, a device that health care professionals can use to overcome language barriers, in the company’s Duluth office. A recording of a doctor matching the patient’s ethnicity appears on the screen to help ascertain medical history and symptoms.

Photo: Amanda Hansmeyer, Star Tribune

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There are more than 6,700 languages spoken throughout the world. Chances are, U.S. health care workers will encounter many of the people who speak them.

Short of learning every language, health care workers have learned to rely on interpreters to diagnose issues, prescribe medicine, or gain background information on a patient.

Now GeaCom, a Duluth-based start-up company, believes it has a more efficient way for health care workers to communicate with foreign-speaking patients. The company's new product, called the Phrazer, is a touch-screen, hand-held device that can collect a patient's medical history and symptoms.

Since its launch in 2007, the company has attracted more than $800,000 from angel investors.

"The response has been phenomenal," said Mat Johnson, a founder and the CEO of GeaCom. "We've received attention both nationally and globally."

The market for such a device could be significant.

"The need for interpretation has continued to grow and grow," said Annie Listiak, manager of interpreter relations at Hennepin County Medical Center. "We have a large enough staff to keep up, but patients may still be affected by past health care experiences that affect how well we can communicate."

The hospital makes more than 10,000 patient contacts each month that require dual-language interpretation. To meet the demand, HCMC currently employs more than 70 interpreters. The median salary of an interpreter is more than $40,000, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Phrazer is expected to hit the market this fall with 75 languages, from Hmong to American Sign Language, and will retail for $12,000 to $18,000. Johnson said the device could save a hospital up to $60,000 annually.

The device already has generated some buzz. GeaCom won the 2010 Minnesota Cup in the high-tech division, and is a nominee for a 2011 Edison Awards and a 2011 CTIA Wireless Big Idea award.

Dr. Stephen Hadley with the Saint Luke's Rheumatology Associates in Duluth also is on GeaCom's medical advisory board.

"It's a very exciting development, and for cost and convenience's sake, will be an invaluable tool down the line," Hadley said.

When the patient speaks into the Phrazer, the device will determine the language they speak in less than 20 seconds, Johnson said. Then a prerecording of a doctor matching the patient's ethnicity will walk onto the screen and speak to the patient in their language, assisting in filling out a medical history and explaining specific complaints to the doctor.

No text appears on the screen for the patient to decipher. Instead, the patient responds to verbal questions and visual representations to describe symptoms such as ''burning pain'' or ''pressure.''

And unlike traditional interpretive services, the Phrazer doesn't translate every bit of information the patient enters into the device. Instead, it will compile the patient's responses and chart it for the health care worker.

"We didn't want to waste the time of the doctor by translating every word," Johnson said. "The Phrazer only relates necessary information."

The Phrazer is loaded with prerecorded series of questions called protocols that follow the American Medical Association's guidelines for diagnosing symptoms or complaints. Every answer a patient gives is related to the medical professional, but in medically appropriate terms. For example, a patient could enter that they had a stabbing pain on the left side of their stomach, and the device would tell the doctor ''discomfort of lateral side of abdomen.''

The Phrazer also has two sensors that allow the device to monitor a patient's vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, and will alert health care personnel if immediate care is needed.

Health care workers will be provided with clues to the patient's customs and social belief systems as well, such as whether physical contact should be avoided or if an elder member of the family should be present to speak for the patient.

"It's a complete change in medical technology," Johnson said. "There's no limit on how many languages the Phrazer can learn."

In addition to being used domestically, Johnson sees a chance to bring the device abroad in situations of disaster relief when quick translation might be a matter of life and death.

Megan Nicolai is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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