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A&M-Corpus Christi uses Technology to Bridge Language Barrier in Colonia Healthcare Clinic

June 29, 2017

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WEBB COUNTY, Texas – When a language barrier threatened to slow the process of delivering healthcare to Colonia residents in Laredo, the College of Nursing and Health Sciences (CONHS) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi used an innovative piece of technology – along with a handful of volunteers – to continue the critical mission of care.

During the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) from June 19-29, the community centers of four Laredo Colonias were transformed into health clinics. Each day, hundreds of Colonia residents received vision screening, dental care and health education at the clinics, with treatments done by trained medical professional in the U.S. Army Reserves, with the assistance of CONHS students from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Very early in the two-week IRT period, it became obvious that a language barrier was slowing down the delivery of healthcare, as only a small percentage of volunteer healthcare workers could communicate in both English and Spanish, while many of the Colonia residents only spoke Spanish.

“In the planning of this mission, we contacted many translators in Laredo to see if they could help, but it simply didn’t work out with everyone’s busy summer schedule,” said Dr. Mary Jane Hamilton, CONHS Dean. “Additionally, while many of our Islander students have Hispanic surnames, they don’t necessarily speak Spanish, so we had to think of another plan.”

Hamilton, along with Dr. Jason Saladiner, CONHS Director of Innovative Programs, put their heads together to figure out a solution.

“In the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, we have this piece of technology called a double robotics robot, which is a virtual presence device,” said Saladiner. “Faculty who deliver their courses via online methods use it to log in from a distance and talk to students in on-campus labs, or visa versa. With this problem of not having enough translators in Laredo, it seemed like a natural fit to see if the robot could help, by engaging a group of campus volunteers who speak Spanish to help translate.”

Here’s how it worked. The double robotics robot, which is essentially an iPad on wheels – equipped with a camera and audio kit – was set up in the clinic at the El Cenizo Colonia Community Center. Meanwhile, a laptop equipped with software that communicates with the robot, was set up in an office in Island Hall on campus. In that office, a rotation of volunteers helped translate conversations between patient and medical professional.

Abraham Gomez, who visited the El Cenizo clinic for a routine checkup, including vision and dental services, says the robot was a huge benefit.

“A lot of people in this community do not speak English, especially the older folks,” said Gomez. “Being able to communicate through a translator to say what is wrong with you is very helpful and makes people feel comfortable asking questions.”

In total, campus volunteers offered a combined 10 hours of time to assist with translation efforts.

“Many of these clinics hit max capacity of patients just two hours after they opened their doors for the day,” said Saladiner. “There is such a great need in these communities that anything we can do to speed up care makes a huge difference.”