KOBE — For foreigners who cannot communicate in Japanese, having an interpreter is important when seeing a doctor.
But given the difficulty of finding a translator during an emergency, medical institutions in Kobe will launch a pilot project next month under which they can contact volunteer interpreters through the Internet and receive interpretation services over the telephone.
The project, the first of its kind in Japan, is an effort to be prepared for emergencies during the World Cup soccer tournament, which is expected to draw many foreign visitors to the city.
Kobe City General Hospital in Chuo Ward and several other medical institutions will be involved in the project, according to municipal officials. The languages available will be English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Under the project, which will run throughout June, 120 volunteers — 20 for each language — will register with the computer server such information as their names, contact numbers and the times they will be free to interpret. That information can then be accessed by medical staff.
When called, the volunteers will translate the conversation between medical staffers and foreign patients over the telephone. Although the information on volunteers will be constantly updated in a full-fledged system to be introduced next spring, the renewal of the information will not be as current during the one-month pilot period.
“Although we can deal with foreign patients if they can speak English, other languages will be more difficult,” said Norio Nakamura, an official of the general affairs section of Kobe City General Hospital, which receives an average of 2,300 patients daily.
“So far, doctors have somehow managed to deal with such patients by using a multilingual handbook on medical treatment.”
The idea of matching volunteer interpreters with medical institutions via the Internet was proposed by an Osaka-based nonprofit organization, the Center for Multicultural Information and Assistance, which works to support foreign residents. The group also has offices in Kyoto, Hyogo, Hiroshima and Tokyo.
The group has often been asked by foreigners and medical institutions to find interpreters, but it takes a lot of effort to match volunteer interpreters and foreigners or medical institutions, said Taro Tamura, the group’s representative.
In the course of discussions with an engineer from electronics firm Fujitsu Ltd., which developed a system to match people using Internet-connectable mobile phones, Tamura thought of using it in medical situations.
“The system would make it easier for medical institutions to find the right translators,” he said. “Another merit of the system is that the information on volunteers can be renewed constantly, although that will not be the case in the June project.”
Translations via telephone are also handy in cases where the patient does not want to be accompanied by an interpreter when seeing a doctor.
“What is important is to let users decide what they like best by offering them a variety of choices,” Nakamura said.
Kyoji Ueda, head of the international division at Kobe City Hall, said the city is considering using the system at other locations, including on board ambulances.
“As the system has wide applications, there are many things we can do to improve the quality of life for foreign residents,” Ueda said.
A demonstration of the system was conducted in December at Kobe City General Hospital involving doctors, translators and mock patients.
The demonstration went fine, though some areas for improvement were discovered, such as the skill of the translators and the sound quality of the voices coming through speakers.
While admitting the usefulness of the system, Nakamura voiced some concerns over its cost.
“If we want to use the system at different places — like in the emergency room, a consultation room and a dispensary — we need to install infrastructure, such as connecting computers with an office LAN,” Nakamura said. “But that costs a lot of money.”
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