Duluth’s Phrazer maker sees room for device and human interpretersA Duluth-based company’s multilingual medical device won’t necessarily put human interpreters out of business, its inventor says.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
A Duluth-based company’s multilingual medical device won’t necessarily put human interpreters out of business, its inventor says.
“Our device is all about providing extreme accuracy and very timely service,” said Mat Johnson, founder and CEO of GeaCom Inc., which produces a device called the Phrazer out of the seventh floor of the Dewitt-Seitz building in Canal Park. “I could see the Phrazer and interpreters working together.”
The Phrazer is a handheld instrument that allows a patient to answer questions to quickly provide caregivers with the vital information they need, Johnson said. It can be programmed in any language to bridge the gap between, for instance, a patient who speaks only Hmong and a doctor who speaks only English.
Johnson outlined a scenario in which the Phrazer might be used:
An Asian woman seeks help in an emergency room, but the staff has no idea what language she speaks.
“Historically, you’re in for a problem right away,” Johnson said. “You can’t begin to treat somebody until you’ve figured out what her language is.”
But the Phrazer is programmed to identify a person’s language. As soon as it determines that the patient is Laotian, an actor depicting a Laotian doctor appears on the screen in front of her and instructs her in the process. She responds by pressing simple keys for “yes” and “no.”
The Phrazer measures the patient’s vital signs without anyone having to touch her, Johnson said. It will guide her to one of four major categories of triage. She will see an Asian female body on the screen and be asked to touch the area or areas on the body where she has concerns. By touching the screen, she’ll be able to describe the pain in detail. Listening through an ear bud, the caregiver will hear something like: “Stabbing pain, lower left quadrant, sudden onset, high degree.”
The information is connected directly to the hospital or clinic’s electronic medical records system.
It’s not just about languages.
“We’re just here to bridge the gap between patients and caregivers,” said Jon Oja, marketing coordinator for GeaCom. “It’s not necessarily a translating system. It’s more of a communication system.”
A patient need not be literate to use a Phrazer. And even when language or literacy aren’t issues, the Phrazer can eliminate errors and allow caregivers to bypass the routine part of an examination and focus more quickly on the patients’ problems, Johnson said.
Karen Arthur, whose Clarity Interpreting Services provides human interpreters, said she’s sees a role for a Phrazer, such as in an ambulance on the way to the emergency room. But she thinks it would have limits.
“Out of people’s brains come all kinds of expressions and combinations of words,” Arthur said. “That would be a challenge for a tool like that.”
Added John Atella, who interprets between Mandarin and English: “A tool couldn’t see body language. It couldn’t understand culture.”
But the Phrazer is programmed with painstaking attention to cultural and language nuances, said Zach Anderson, manager of content and software integration. The script is first translated into the needed language by a medical translation company. It is videotaped in a studio — either in Duluth or Minneapolis — by a medical interpreter. If the interpreter doesn’t agree with the wording, it can be recorded both ways. The result is sent to yet another expert for quality checking and final decisions.
The device isn’t programmed with a set number of languages, Oja said. Instead, it’s programmed within four to six weeks to meet the needs of the purchaser. “Basically, we have our setup, and that can be translated into any language,” he said.
The Phrazer is assembled in St. Peter, Minn. The devices are typically leased for $600 a month, Johnson said. The company expects to ship between 6,000 and 10,000 Phrazers this year.
He declined to say how many employees GeaCom has.
“We’re going from research and development to sales and marketing,” Johnson said. “It’s a roller coaster moving slowly upward. We can finally start stabilizing.”