Telehealth and Interpreting Share Roots in the Telephone

Contrary to the belief of some, Alexander Graham Bell’s first call after inventing the telephone was not for medical assistance. But it makes for a great story.

Since its invention in 1876, people have been using the telephone to make appointments, fill prescriptions, call for emergency services, and even dispense medical advice. And although Bell’s apocryphal call for help may not have really happened, it’s clear that his invention forever changed the way in which people connect with their healthcare providers.

Defining Telehealth

The Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) defines telehealth as encompassing “a broad variety of technologies and tactics to deliver virtual medical, health, and education services. Telehealth is not a specific service, but a collection of means to enhance care and education delivery.”  

Telehealth isn’t just about a patient connecting with their primary care physician on an iPad. It’s about creating a more dynamic system where care isn’t limited by proximity. The Mayo Clinic’s neonatologists use video telemedicine to provide resuscitation assistance to high-risk newborn infants. After Hurricane Irma, Nemours Children’s Health System offered families in Florida free access to their pool of board-certified pediatricians via the web or mobile app. Adoption of telehealth solutions continues to soar as healthcare systems look for ways to lower costs while also providing flexible, high-quality care to remote patient populations.

The Evolution of Interpreting

Interpreting has evolved much in the same way as healthcare delivery. What began as an industry with predominately face-to-face encounters has expanded through the integration of telephones. (Thanks, Alexander Graham Bell!) The first documented use of remote interpreters was a 24-hour emergency telephone interpreting service in Australia in 1973. Over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) slowly made its way to the U.S. in the early 1980s. The accessibility of remote professional interpreters combined with the 24/7 availability of the telephone made the pairing irresistible to hospitals. Since its introduction, healthcare professionals have dialed language service providers to connect with professional medical interpreters, helping them communicate remotely with limited English proficient (LEP) patients.

While OPI remains one of the most popular modes of communicating with LEP individuals, the use of video — for both remote interpreting and telehealth — is on the rise.

Healthcare, Interpreters, and Telehealth

Video platforms are making on-demand access to remote interpreters and healthcare professionals more personable while remaining easy to use. Healthcare workers can log into a web browser on a computer or an app on a tablet and quickly connect to professional healthcare interpreters or a remote medical specialist via a video connection.

Video allows interpreters and providers to read facial expressions, physical indications, and the patient’s environment for contextual clues that could potentially influence important communication and care.

As video remote interpreting (VRI) offers a new way for patients and providers to access crucial language resources, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is making remote interpreting an essential component of telehealth services. (Click here to read our guide.) Whether via a video connection or over the phone, doctors and other healthcare workers rely on qualified interpreters to communicate with LEP patients.

We may take the telephone for granted, but it’s a simple, ubiquitous device on which humans around the world will continue to depend for decades. And for LEP people in the U.S., the telephone — and, increasingly, streaming video — is a routine part of healthcare delivery.

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