Black, white, and green telephone receivers used for medical interpreting

Telemedicine and Interpreting Share Roots in the Telephone

Contrary to popular belief, Alexander Graham Bell’s first call after inventing the telephone was not for medical assistance. The inventor did not spill battery acid on himself, at least not according to his daily log. 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 likely wasn’t for medical care, his invention forever changed the way in which people connect with their healthcare providers.

Telemedicine and the telephone

The Health Resources & Services Information (HRSA) defines telemedicine “as the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration.”

While most of us don’t think of the telephone when we think of telemedicine technology today, it played an integral role in the remote delivery of healthcare soon after its invention. Its use was documented in the medical journal The Lancet as early as 1879. And in 1948, the first radiologic images traveled between two Pennsylvania cities via telephone, nearly 24 miles apart. 

In modern times, telemedicine 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 board-certified pediatricians via the web or app. 

And as we’ve seen in 2020, telehealth has been a lifesaver for many patients and providers. The once-in-a-lifetime coronavirus pandemic sent millions of people into quarantine, and demand for telehealth appointments soared. Virtual visits, as a result, could climb to over 900 million by the end of 2020, according to Forrester estimates. 

Related: Telemedicine, Section 1557, CMS, and Language Access in Rural Healthcare

The application of the telephone in interpreting

Stethoscope draped over a silver iPhone 6.

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 interpreters combined with the 24/7 availability of the telephone made the pairing irresistible to hospitals. 

Since its introduction, healthcare professionals have dialed interpreting companies to connect with professional medical interpreters, helping them communicate remotely with limited English proficient (LEP) patients.

While OPI remains a popular choice, the use of video — for both remote interpreting and telemedicine — is on the rise.

Healthcare, interpreters, and video

Video platforms are making on-demand access to remote interpreters and healthcare professionals more personable while remaining easy to use. Healthcare workers can use any device and quickly connect to medical interpreters or a remote specialist via video.

Related: Accessing Interpreters for Telehealth Made Simple with 3-Way Video Calls

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 telemedicine services. Whether via VRI or OPI, healthcare workers rely on qualified medical 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 populations in the U.S., the telephone — and, increasingly, video — is a routine part of healthcare delivery.

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