Shengyu Zhao is propped up on pillows in her hospital bed. It has been two days since her kidney transplant, and she looks tired, yet content. Every day, she feels a little bit better.

Her nurse gives her medication and dosage instructions. Zhao asks how long new kidneys typically last. The nurse reassures her that if she takes her medication, exercises and eats well, she can be healthy for a very long time.

This may sound like an ordinary conversation, but there’s something special about it. Zhao speaks Cantonese, but not English. The nurse speaks English, but not Cantonese. Their entire exchange would not be possible without an app called LanguageLine InSight, installed on a tablet and brought to the patient’s bedside.
With the use of this new translation technology, the staff in transplant services at UW Medical Center can easily communicate with any patient, regardless of their primary language, at any time of day or night — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The tablet gets a lot of use.

“Probably 100 percent of our staff have used it at some point,” says Laura Moffett, R.N. She’s a nurse in UW Medical Center’s transplant unit, and she’s used the tool to translate Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, Ukrainian, Arabic and Spanish. Moffett estimates that she uses the tablet about 15 to 20 times a week.
“It’s used by nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists…it bounces from room to room,” she says.

Any language at any moment
The tablet is used frequently because it’s easy to use. If a nurse needs to take a medical history at 2 a.m., he or she can do so with the tablet, which is placed on a wheeled stand. “If you need to ask a quick question, you just pull it into the patient’s room, set it up and ask your question. It’s on-demand all the time,” says Moffett.

This is how it works, generally: A care team provider selects a language from the menu, and the interpreter appears on the screen, their name at the bottom. The patient can see the translator, and the translator can see the patient. “With a video interpreter, a patient can point and be more descriptive,” says Moffett. “This app is making it easier to take better care of patients in the moment.”

That said, the tablet is not a replacement for an in-person interpreter. “There are definitely times when it’s preferable to have another human in the room,” Moffett says. UW Medical Center relies heavily on in-person interpreters when it comes to translating difficult or sensitive conversations, such as those that take place around end-of-life care goals.

A way to say “thanks”
While the interpreter translates, the tablet rests on its stand at the foot of Zhao’s bed, just as if it were another member of her care team.

Although the tablet is usually used to convey practical information — consents for procedures, whether someone prefers water with ice — today, it also conveys Zhao’s feelings of gratitude.

“Is it possible to give my kidney donor a gift?” Zhao asks her nurse via the interpreter. “I just want to say ‘thank you,’ because he or she saved my life.”
Zhao’s nurse and the interpreter then explain how this type of request is usually handled.

“The tablet has been a life-changer for us,” says Moffett. “It would be great if we had more of them.”

A postscript. Just like nurses, good ideas make the rounds! The interpreter-on-a-tablet program all started with a gift to UW Medical Center’s oncology unit from the late Jeanne Cortner and her family and friends — a gift made in memory of her son, John. The idea has worked so well that it’s being implemented in other units, like transplant services.


With a gift to the UWMC Fund for Greatest Need.