Health Care Is Not Lost in Translation With This App
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Esperanto never really worked anyway.
By Eugene S. Robinson
We catch Arleen Lopez, a 2021 OZY Genius Award winner, right as her shift as a medical scribe ends. Like a medical stenographer, Lopez shadows doctors and notes what they prescribe, along with all and sundry pertinent information for proper patient care. A gig that makes a hell of a lot of sense for a premed student at Rutgers’ Honors College who’s majoring in neuroscience, behavior and biology.
But Lopez has chosen to shadow doctors in the emergency room, a place of life and death that might not be the place you’d expect to attract a 22-year-old. Until you learn that she first came to New Jersey as a 15-year-old from Lima, Peru, accompanied by a brother with serious health issues, to live with a grandmother with health issues. A situation that focuses the mind. Specifically Lopez’s.
“He needed surgery,” Lopez says.
Lopez had studied English in high school in Lima, but high school English wasn’t going to get her very far when serious medical procedures were being discussed. So, in the space of a very high-pressured two years and an American school system that recognized that she knew more English than was suitable for an English as a Second Language class but much less than what would’ve been required for a standard English class, the sink-or-swim decision was made: standard English class for Lopez.
“I was wishing that there was a service where I could just call … and talk to someone who is native and willing to help out.”
All of which meant that in addition to mastering a different language, there was a new culture to adapt to — with Lopez having to translate for her entire family in hospital settings where slips or misunderstandings could prove fatal. A heavy load for a teenager but also the setting in which she had her first eureka thought: “I was wishing that there was a service where I could just call and talk to someone who is native and willing to help out,” she says.
So Lopez did what any enterprising Gen Zer does when faced with an irksome problem, the solution to which might be a boon for those well beyond her small circle. She and some friends decided to design an app.
They named it Language Connection — they being Lopez, along with recent grad Katherine Chavarria, bio major Harrison Chiu and biomedical health sciences grad Reyna Moreira — and structured it on one side around the recruiting and screening of volunteer translators. On the other side? Regional facilities where the need is greatest.
And this is not just a phone hotline. The app would come equipped with a video interface that puts patients face-to-face with their individual health care providers. Scaled across underserved communities nationwide and initially targeting American Sign Language, French, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish speakers, and even able to reach beyond borders to cover international service, Language Connection will be a heavy lift.
Heavy, ambitious and worthwhile — the kind of tool that it seems someone should already have thought up. But thinking it, and designing and developing it? Two entirely different things.
“This project is exactly the kind of creative approach to real-world problems that the Honors College encourages in all our students,” says Honors College director Laura Troiano. “We want them to actively engage with their peers and the many communities to which they belong … [to be] living examples of this sense of citizenry and community engagement.” Troiano, a historian by training, says that she has found that all of her students are aspirational in their dreams and how they interface with technology. “They see possibilities much more clearly than I did. Or do.”
For her part, Lopez is focused on the near-term development issues. “The goals we’re aiming for now are two,” she explains. “Get 100 volunteers in place in Newark and surrounding areas.” And then a “coding hack-a-thon” to flesh out and fine-tune the app.
Now, how genius is that?