Jerrit Tan, a first-generation Chinese-American graduate of the University of Michigan, used to skip school to act as a translator for his immigrant parents and extended family when they visited a doctor.
“All my grandparents and uncles and aunts only spoke Chinese,” he recalled. “I saw how hard it was for people to get access to healthcare.”
That experience helps explain why, after helping to build Google's first New York City sales team, he quit to develop a smartphone app that provides medical interpretation services. Canopy Apps' first product provides access to translations of medical phrases in 15 languages, including Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.
A free version of the app has already been downloaded 80,000 times. Paying clients include Duke University Health System, UNC Health Care, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, whose physicians and staff can use the advanced version.
Caring for the millions of Americans who speak little or no English poses huge challenges for healthcare providers. A 2012 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found patients with limited English proficiency experience longer hospital lengths of stay and greater risks of infections, falls, pressure ulcers and readmissions, compared with English-speaking patients with similar conditions.
Hospitals are required to use interpreters when non-English-speaking patients arrive at their doorsteps. But in many locations, interpreters can be difficult to reach. Telephone services often have poor audio quality or present a logistical nightmare in a physician's office or a hospital room.