Providing 24/7 medical interpretation through a ‘telebot’

Interpreters at Thailand’s Nakornthon Hospital can remotely control a Wangjai ‘telebot’, or a mobile system of video-conferencing tools, to provide 24/7 interpretation for patients and clinicians

We have all probably experienced the frustration of getting lost in translation during our travels, or being misunderstood when conversing in a language we are not familiar with. The language barrier, however, becomes a more serious issue in the hospital setting, with important decisions like care paths and treatments requiring a complete understanding by both patients and medical staff.

To get around this issue, most healthcare providers have interpreters on stand-by to help. This allows medical tourists, or individuals living in a country that does not speak their native language, bridge the communication gap.

However, most of these interpreters are only present during business hours. This poses a problem, as healthcare requirements are 24/7; emergency cases can arrive at any time, while a patient’s condition could also deteriorate during the wee hours of the night.

Enter the Wangjai telebot

Nakornthon Hospital, located in south Bangkok, was conscious of this issue faced by its foreign patients. So in 2020, they invested in a “telebot” – a mobile system comprising a monitor screen, speakers and camera that can be remotely controlled – to try and mitigate the problem.

“Wangjai” is really speaking to the word “trust”. The telebot is linked to Nakornthon’s interpreters via the telebot telepresence mobile application. Whenever an urgent need for interpretation arises outside of working hours, an alert is sent to these interpreters to connect to Wangjai via the app.

The ‘Wangjai’ telebot

Once connected, the interpreter is able to control the movement of Wangjai, which allows them to move the telebot towards the patient’s location, if needed. When in place, the interpreter can begin a live video conference session, where all three parties – the interpreter, patient and clinician(s) – can view each other’s body language and movements clearly in real-time, thus ensuring a much smoother interaction. This is a step up from using a phone call or video call function on a mobile phone, which is less stable and offers lower quality communication.

The hospital currently has a team of full-time interpreters that cater to the three main languages in demand – English, Chinese and Burmese. While they are on standby after working hours for any emergency calls, the hospital can also tap on a pool of external part-time interpreters for the main languages and other languages when required.

Enabling clear, timely communications 

The hospital noted that the introduction of Wangjai has helped to enhance patient care and outcomes. “Wangjai has improved shared decision making on care paths, especially emergency cases or in specific areas such as Labour rooms or Operation rooms,”  shared Ms. Runchanaphorn Supakate, International Marketing Manager at Nakornthon. “Many doctors feel that their communications come across more clearly now.”

There were, however, some initial challenges in persuading hospital users to be on board with the implementation of these new technologies. Some did not see the benefits of adopting such technologies, while others felt that it was too complicated to use. Providing training and education was critical in clearing such concerns and overcoming the barrier to adoption.

As for the patients, many have expressed that they feel less anxious with the provision of on-time interpretation, as it leads to reduced uncertainty. Indeed, Ms Runchanaphorn revealed that patient surveys so far showed positive feedback for the service.

Ms Runchanaphorn also noted that the use of such interactive communications channels has helped to further connections between patients and interpreters. She recalled how an expat family built a close relationship with one of their interpreters following a number of interactions – both face-to-face and via the telebot. The family even went down to the hospital to deliver a gift to the interpreter on the interpreter’s birthday. Unfortunately, the interpreter was on leave that day, and was unable to personally receive it. Nonetheless, the interpreter was still able to thank to the family for their kind gesture by using the telebot to speak with them.

Plans for future tech adoption

With the positive reception to Wangjai so far, the hospital is now paying closer attention to its usage, as they look to perhaps purchasing additional units in the future.

Similar to other healthcare organisations, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven home the importance and benefits of telemedicine and remote care to Nakornthon. The hospital noted that it is working on developing the necessary infrastructure for further adoption of telemedicine tools, while continuing to monitor and align its plans to government regulations in the area. To drive buy-in, continuous staff education will also be conducted to demonstrate how such tools can make a positive impact on hospital operations and patient safety or experience.