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Health Team

iPods break down language barrier at UNC Hospitals

Posted November 13, 2009 11:23 a.m. EST
Updated November 13, 2009 6:17 p.m. EST

— iPods are helping UNC Hospitals reduce the time it takes to call an interpreter for patients who don't speak English.

Juan Reyes-Alonso supervises a staff of 25 interpreters at UNC Hospitals who iron out communication difficulties for patients, many of whom speak only Spanish.

"It is extremely frustrating that when there is a language barrier you don't know what you need to be doing. You don't even know what they're telling you to do," Reyes-Alonso said.

A language barrier arose when Efren and Rosa Martinez took their infant daughter Francesca for a recommended newborn exam. Instead, hospital staff thought the child was sick.

"When they came in, there was a miscommunication at the reception desk," Reyes-Alonso said. Once summoned to help the Martinez family, he got lab work completed to check Francesca for jaundice and scheduled a regular exam.

Such confusion can delay possibly critical medical care when interpreters can't get there quickly.

In the past, UNC interpreters used pagers, then digital phones to receive requests. Those devices, though, had limitations within the hospital that often meant delays of 20 minutes or longer.

Then, the hospital became among the first in the country to try a special messaging system using an iPod Touch.

"The iPod Touch was the device we were looking for," Reyes-Alonso said.

The handheld device lists requests and tracks responses from several interpreters. It also comes with dictionaries to help interpreters with unfamiliar medical terms.

Using the device has made deep cuts to response time, Reyes-Alonso said.

"It's less than 5 minutes, because we had the request in our iPods in a matter of seconds," he said.