Google Translate can help doctors bridge the language gap in patients, but it's not flawless


Screen capture: Gizmodo

Physicians serving diverse communities often have the challenge of communicating effectively with patients who do not share their language. Some doctors fill this gap with the help of Google Translate, an AI-based application that has become more and more sophisticated in recent years. But if a new California study shows that the app can certainly help non-English speaking patients and their doctors, it is not flawless – rarely, translations could even cause harm.

Previous studies on Google Translate and other translation tools to decipher medical information for non-English speakers have yielded mixed results. A study cited by the authors, for example, revealed a 60% accuracy rate for patient brochures translated into Spanish. But in 2017, Google updated its translation algorithm, saying that it would greatly increase accuracy.

To test this, researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have sent a series of 100 medical instructions via the new version of the application. The instructions were removed from those given to patients by real emergency room doctors and translated into Spanish and Chinese.

The results, published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday, were a lot more impressive this time around. In total, 92% of the instructions translated into Spanish were accurate, as well as 81% of the instructions translated into Chinese.

"Google Translate is more accurate than many clinicians think, and I think it's certainly more useful than not providing anything at all," said in a statement the main author Elaine Khoong, in charge of research in basic care at UCSF. "We are cautiously supporting its use."

That said, there were confusing instructions from time to time. Generally, these were confusing and relatively harmless translations, often caused by the doctor's use of long sentences or medical jargon. But more rarely, there were translated instructions that could have been dangerous for the patients.

Khoong and his team cited as examples a doctor who ordered a patient to stop taking a drug at a given time, to indicate that he was "holding the kidney drug". take "treatment and Spanish as" to keep the drug. "

These harmful interpretations occurred only 2% of the time among all Spanish translation errors and 8% with translation errors in Chinese. And the authors say that they should not invalidate the positive aspects of using Google Translate. But doctors could take concrete steps to prevent the worst from happening, they added.

These include keeping up with short and simple sentences, using Google Translate with a human translator (whether in person, over the phone or by video) and having fun. write instructions in both English and translated language, so that an English speaking parent or friend can later review both and make sure that there is not major failure of translation.

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