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Loud and Clear: Pennsylvania EMS Pilots Translation Tech

City health and emergency workers in Allentown, Pa., are seeing the positive impact of the video remote interpreting technology as part of a pilot program to improve health-care accessibility.

A paramedic in an ambulance working with a patient while using a tablet.
A pilot project in the city of Allentown, Pa., has supplied Allentown Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and the Allentown Health Bureau workers with remote video interpreting technology.

Language translation applications are gaining traction, as they offer the potential for government agencies to better serve constituents in a range of spaces, from virtual court hearings to voting locations. For health-care agencies, the technology can help to improve the quality of health care for marginalized communities.

“The Lehigh County region of Pennsylvania is very diverse, and it’s estimated that about 48 percent are non-English speaking as a primary language,” stated EMS Chief of Operations Mehmet Barzev.

Allentown EMS paramedics respond to over 16,000 calls for service a year, but the majority of the team is not bilingual. Health-care workers sometimes had to use hand gestures or free online translation services to communicate with people they served that did not speak English, which had significant limitations.

When this issue was brought to the attention of Lehigh Valley Health Network’s manager of interpreter services, Joumana De Santiago, the idea to pilot a translation technology solution was born.

Funding for the project came from The Health Care Trust of Anne Constance and Carl Robert Anderson at LVHN. The funding helped purchase five iPads for EMS and two for the Health Bureau, which will allow staff to connect with interpreters through video conferencing.

As De Santiago explained, the application connects staff to an operator for translation services in a video call. The call will first be directed to an LVHN interpreter from LVHN’s call center if one is available; otherwise, it will be directed to the contracted vendor, AMN Healthcare Language Services.

There are about 40 languages available, including American Sign Language, and Barzev described these capabilities as being “a godsend” from an EMS provider perspective, and the technology has already been deemed effective enough to be a long-term asset.

“If it works, and it works once, and it affects patient care one time, then in my opinion it pays for itself,” he said.

The pilot program will run through October, and the involved parties are seeking additional funding sources for the service’s continuation. Lehigh Valley Health Network will continue to offer support for the service in Allentown after the pilot is complete.

“I think this is a really effective tool in overcoming language and cultural barriers,” De Santiago stated. “I feel like there’s a very large need — not just only in our area, but throughout our country. It will really positively impact patients and communities.”

De Santiago explained that LVHN is working to collect data from this application and share it with the city to provide a better understanding of which languages are needed most frequently, how many calls are coming per day as well as the peak call times. This information will allow the city health workers to improve the quality of service.

Implementing the technology has been a relatively smooth process, Barzev said, as it does not require extensive digital skills to use, but he noted that some older patients using the virtual translation application may face a greater learning curve. Other challenges include connectivity challenges in certain locations and audio volume limitations of the iPads.

However, De Santiago said that solutions are being considered, such as additional technology to enhance volume in ambulances.

While the pilot is focused on the city of Allentown, it is likely to expand to other areas in the future. Lehigh Valley Health Network is exploring the best way to provide additional translation service resources to other cities in the area.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.