B.C. paramedic launches pocketbook translator to address language barrier issues for first responders

In a medical emergency, language barriers can make it hard to gather vital information about a patient's condition — a challenge that B.C. paramedic James Shearer is all too familiar with on the job which he says occurs almost daily.

Communication issues mean responders have to ‘essentially guess as to what’s up’

The booklet allows the paramedic to point to translated phrases and questions to better understand what the patient is facing. (Emergency Medical Translator )

In a medical emergency, language barriers can make it hard to gather vital information about a patient's condition — a challenge that B.C. paramedic James Shearer is all too familiar with on the job which he says occurs almost daily.  

More than 150,000 British Columbians identified as speaking neither of Canada's official languages, according to the latest census data, and many tourists who seek emergency medical treatment also don't speak English, Shearer said.  

Shearer has created a pocket-sized emergency medical translator to help first responders across the province communicate with patients who speak nine of the most commonly spoken foreign languages in B.C.

"Everyone gets sick and has accidents," he said. "When the paramedic or first responder arrives, one of the first things that typically occurs is an engagement of conversation."

The emergency medical translator is still in the prototype phase but has received positive feedback so far, says Shearer. (Emergency Medical Translator)

Key questions the first responders need to know when assisting a patient range from when the symptoms started to previous medical history to treatment options, he said.

"When we're not able to talk to them, this can be quite significant," Shearer said.

"The responder has to essentially guess as to what's up, which could be quite different compared to if you are able to communicate."

The booklet also includes images and symbols for the patient to point to in order to give more details about their medical emergency. (Emergency Medical Translator)

Point and pick

Having a family member or passerby to translate can be helpful in a pinch but raises all sorts of privacy issues, Shearer said.

Translated phrases range from questions about previous medical history to details about the medical emergency. (Emergency Medical Translator)

Paramedics also have the option of an over-the-phone translation service but it can often be lengthy and cause delays, he added. The pocket translator is a small booklet based on symbols, for paramedic and patient to point to.

"You essentially pick what you would like to communicate to the person, point at it and then look for their reaction," said Shearer.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to even identify what language the patient speaks, Shearer says, which is why there is a list of languages and flags. (Emergency Medical Translator)

"No pronunciation is needed [because] that's often where communication problems can occur by pronouncing things incorrectly."

He launched the prototype of the translator Tuesday on a crowd-sourcing site and, within a day, the project raised more than 35 per cent of its funding goal.

"There is definitely a lot of interest," Shearer said.

In a medical emergency, language barriers can make it hard to gather vital information about a patient's condition - a challenge that B.C. paramedic James Shearer was all too familiar with on the job which he says says occurs almost daily. 8:56

With files from On The Island.

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