Language barriers can be life-threatening when you get sick in a foreign country and don’t know how to explain it to your doctor.

Your heart is beating fast, your palms are getting sweaty and breathing is labored. You know you have probably come down with a cold, but what if your illness is more serious?

Ideally, that’s when an interpreter is called to the scene. But if none is available, “going high-tech” could be one alternative.

“What brings you here?” says an interpreter on an iPad as she translates a Japanese doctor’s query into English.

“I have an excruciating pain in my stomach, and I can’t stand it,” the patient answers. The interpreter instantly translates the words back into Japanese in a videophone call to a mock clinic in Osaka.

The interpreter is not physically present in this training session, but her contributions are enormous, not only because she is lowering the language barrier but also because she is easing the patient’s anxiety level.

“Medical interpreting is different from other types of interpreting, and it can be used in a life-or-death situation,” said Kiyomi Takizawa, a researcher at Gunma University Hospital in Gunma Prefecture, where many Brazilians live.

Takizawa hopes to make more medical interpreters available via phone or Internet for the new field of “remote medical interpreting,” which depends on computers, mobile phones, and tablet PCs.

Takizawa thinks remote medical interpreting can be put into practical use in Japan, after having set up his own call center at his hospital to provide interpretation in languages including Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and English.

Foreign patients felt more comfortable explaining their symptoms and worries, and communicated well with the Japanese doctors, according to his research.

The future looks promising, but Takizawa says the infrastructure for medical interpreting must be “near perfect,” with high-quality and stable communication lines — a point shared by others in the field.

But doctors, nurses and other hospital workers also stress the importance of face-to-face medical care, and say remote medical interpreting should be a supplement, rather than a replacement, for conventional interpreting.

“Medical care is a continuous process that involves doctors, nurses and other medical staff throughout the various stages of treatment. And medical interpreters may have a role to play in that process,” a nurse at an Osaka hospital said. “Remote medical interpreting may someday become a strong link in that chain.”

Health Life Passport, a free app developed by Takizawa and others for mobile devices offers a choice of 29 languages for engaging in medical interpretation. The user is asked to answer multiple-choice questions about their health, symptoms and medical history in the two languages chosen. The interview sheets are then converted into PDF format and can be emailed with photos, for example, of injuries to doctors or nurses.

If the ultimate goal is to improve the quality of medical services for all, however, it appears more needs to be done than simply going digital.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to spend around ¥60 million in fiscal 2014 to train medical staff, including paramedics, to speak English at some hospitals.

It hopes to make English-speaking staff available around the clock at all eight municipal hospitals in the future, a metropolitan government official said. “We’d like to seize on the opportunity as Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics,” the official added.

A two-week survey through Feb. 4 at the hospitals found roughly 1 percent of patients — 135 inpatients, outpatients and emergency patients — came from 33 countries.

However, over the longer term, that figure is expected to change as Japan woos foreigners to make up for its labor shortage and “medical tourists” from elsewhere in Asia seeking Japanese treatment.

The number of professional medical interpreters in Japan is still low, despite growing demand and their potential for saving lives, medical experts and researchers say.

Kazumi Takesako, Japan chapter chair of the U.S.-based International Medical Interpreters Association, said the immediate task for Japan is to raise their status in society and increase training based on “real-life” scenarios.

“Japan needs to have a system that can provide medical services regardless of nationality, language, and culture,” Takesako said. “The United States is going ahead as it has embraced diversity. So, training professional medical interpreters will ultimately help Japan internationalize our medical care.”

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