Medical Speech Translation App for 11 South African Languages Adapts to COVID-19 and Completes Three-Year Pilot Program
Speech recognition and translation startup AwezaMed has completed a three-year pilot program for its medical translation app capable of communicating in the 11 official South African languages. The pilot, conducted in doctor’s offices and hospitals, took a new turn this year with the addition of an app specifically for doctors and patients to discuss COVID-19 even if they don’t share a language.
AwezaMed is a subset of Aweza, which split its tech into two platforms, AwezaMed for medical conversation and AwezaE for educational purposes. The AwezaMed app is set up for users to pick pairs of languages to translate between. The AI identifies the language someone is speaking and transcribes and repeats it in the other language chosen by the app’s user, who can then speak and have the app translate their response back into the original language. There are translation apps out there for general purposes, but the specialized vocabulary and other aspects of medical subjects can flummox them sometimes. And not many translation apps incorporate the 11 languages officially spoken in South Africa.
For the AwezaMed app, the company compiled a database of more than 1,800 phrases and sentences that might come up in talks between a doctor or other medical professional and a patient. They include questions, explanations, and even reassurances that a doctor might give a worried patient. Five public hospitals and community health centers tested out a version of the app focused on obstetrics over the last three years. To start, the app only includes three three language pairs, matching English with Afrikaans, Zulu, or Xhosa, but the updated version is supposed to cover the other languages as well.
“AwezaMed exists to improve communication in South Africa, thereby bringing us closer together,” founder Glenn Stein said in a statement. “Language is a tool to build our nation, and with the right institutional support to further the research and development of this technology, there is great potential to bring South Africans together in ways previously thought impossible.”
The COVID-19 pandemic gave AwezaMed a new impetus to pursue. Working with the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the startup spent four months collecting coronavirus-specific words and phrases in each South African language, putting together the AwezaMed COVID-19 app on Android for use when medical professionals talk to patients about the virus.
“By bridging the communication barrier, the trust relationship between the healthcare provider and patient can be improved,” said CSIR tech research group leader Dr. Karen Calteaux in a statement about the app. “In addition, the patient’s experience and the healthcare provider-patient confidentiality can be improved, and lives can possibly be saved.”
AI-assisted healthcare has become a major focus in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical professionals are adopting voice AI and chatbots to help cope. That includes coronavirus-focused virtual assistants to answer questions and perform triage. The spread of voice AI as a record-keeping tool has accelerated as well, drawing funding and clients to startups like Saykara and Suki. Voice tech developer Nuance has been quick to add new features and partners for its medical voice AI Doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently started using the Dragon Medical Virtual Assistant for recording their telehealth calls. Meanwhile, health technology developer Cerner added Dragon to its platform this summer, allowing doctors using Cerner’s platform to fill in and search electronic health records (EHRs) of patients by voice. Doctors use Nuance’s ambient clinical intelligence (ACI) to transcribe telehealth conversations over Microsoft Teams and fill in EHRs.