They are about 4 feet tall, usually reveal a human’s face and can communicate with ease in 200 languages. The devices are little language robots, of a sort, and they're making medical care a lot easier for patients at Novant Health.

At Novant Health Thomasville Medical Associates, team members use the video-interpreter-service-on-wheels several times a week to communicate with patients who are not fluent in English, said LaShekia Peake-Caldwell, a patient services coordinator She said that she’s used it enough now that it no longer feels like something from out of science fiction.

The device, made by Stratus Video, is basically an iPad and speaker on a pole with a rolling base. While it can provide audio translation for 200 languages, it is more regularly used to provide live video translation services for the 18 most commonly used languages, which include American Sign Language.

Once a team member activates the device, a human interpreter at an off-site facility shows up on the iPad screen within seconds and facilitates  a conversation between a patient and their provider. At Novant Health clinics, the service is provided at no extra cost to the patients who need it.

Interpreter services across Novant Health worked with more than 121,000 patients in 2017 using several different means of medical interpretation. That’s an increase of over 41 percent in the past two years. Spanish, Vietnamese, American Sign Language, Russian and Arabic are the five most requested languages.  

“The translators are easy to use and work great,” Peake-Caldwell said. “We try to let patients know when we call to confirm their appointment that we have (video translators), so they’re not surprised. And we tell them to make sure they talk to us and the doctor and they don’t have to look at the screen if they don’t want to.”

Some clinics have given the devices playful names to humanize the experience. For instance, the team at Novant Health Premier Medical Associates in Winston-Salem has named theirs “Bobbie.”

Dr. Terrance Johns, an internal medicine physician at the Thomasville clinic, speaks pretty good Spanish after having lived in Mexico City briefly between college and medical school. He still uses the video translator for his appointments with Spanish-speaking patients.

“What we used to have before the video screen was we’d call in on a telephone line and there’d be an interpreter … but was just awkward and clumsy,” Johns said. “I speak quite a bit of Spanish, but I’m not perfect.

“We’ll start off and I’ll use whatever Spanish I’m able to use, but frequently there are things that I just don’t understand and it’s very helpful to have the interpreter there to fill in those aspects of concern that the patients may have that I would have missed otherwise.”

Johns said it can take some patients a little time to get accustomed to using the device, but that most get the hang of it.

 “I think most of the patients like it,” he said. “It’s really helping us give them the care and services they need.”