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MediBabble: The iPhone App That Could Save Your Life

Waiting for a translator can mean life or death in a hospital. Now doctors have can have a native speaker in their pocket.

MediBabble: The iPhone App That Could Save Your Life

Doctors working in cities with large immigrant populations often come up against a troubling issue: They can’t understand many of the non-native English speakers that come into their hospitals. Medical care providers can always call an on-staff translator, but it can take upwards of 45 minutes for them to arrive. In the meantime, patients with symptoms that could indicate potentially deadly ailments–think shortness of breath or chest pains–may be left without proper treatment, simply because doctors can’t ask them important diagnostic questions.

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The problem led UCSF medical school students Alex Blau and Brad Cohn to create MediBabble–an iPhone app that allows medical care providers to play back thousands of pre-recorded questions in patients’ native languages.

“It started from our own desire to take better care of our patients. We were limited in our ability to get rapid interpretation services,” explains Blau. “So many of us
are walking around the hospital with these sophisticated devices in our
pockets, so [we thought], why isn’t there some app you can pull up to ask high-level
questions for time-sensitive conditions?”

There is always Google Translate–but Blau says that “even though the error rate is improving, it’s too high to trust it as a clinician.”

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Blau and Cohn rounded up a team of translators, developers, and doctors to help them get the internally funded app off the ground. Over the past three years, the MediBabble team has gathered thousands of translated questions and instructions in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, and Haitian-Creole (which was added for doctors on the ground after the Haiti earthquake). Next up: French, German, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic.

Since its release in April, nearly 8,000 people have downloaded the free app, without any marketing from the MediBabble team. According to Blau, the app is particularly popular in ER and trauma settings, where there is little time to waste on finding interpreters.

And while the app is free–and will stay that way–Blau says that MediBabble wouldn’t be averse to selling the the company to a larger conglomerate like WebMD or partnering with a phone-based translation provider.

“Our hope is to have this in the hands of as many clinicians as possible,” he says.

[Images: UCSF, MediBabble]

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[Homepage Image: Flickr user Ben Roffer]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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