No longer lost in translation: Interpreters replace pagers with iPod touch

Pagers are ubiquitous in the hospital setting. They are so familiar and common, in fact, that they are even used for comic effect on medically themed TV dramas such as “House M.D.”

But at UNC Hospitals, the Interpreter Services department has dumped both pagers and cell phones in favor of a technology they find to be much more effective in meeting their needs: the Apple iPod touch.

Juan Reyes-Alonso, who started working as an interpreter at UNC Hospitals in 2003, explains what it was like for the hospitals’ 26 interpreters to work with the pager system that was in place back then.

“All of us carried pagers, and there was just one pager phone number for all of us. So, when a doctor requested an interpreter, all of our pagers would go off at the same time. And all of us who were free at the time would call the doctor back, so the doctor might get calls from 10 different interpreters all at once. It was a mess!” said Reyes-Alonso, UNC Hospitals’ lead interpreter.

About five years ago, the interpreters dropped the pager system and started using cell phones in conjunction with a Web-based dispatch management service called ServiceHub. The service was originally designed to meet the needs of the transportation and field service industries. UNC Hospitals was ServiceHub’s first hospital client, said Hans Wynholds, chairman of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company.

Shane Rogers, director of Interpreter Services at UNC Hospitals, said the ServiceHub system was a big improvement over the pager system.

“The ServiceHub system gave us many advantages that we didn’t have before.”

“The ServiceHub system gave us many advantages that we didn’t have before,” Rogers said. “For example, it gave people requesting interpreters a Web page for submitting their requests, and they could see whether or not an interpreter had been assigned to handle their request, and if so, which one.”

“But the cell phones we were using didn’t work as well as we had hoped. In some parts of the hospital cell phones just can’t get a signal. And sometimes the cell phone service would go down, and then we had to rely on the phone company to get it up and running again.”

A possible solution to that problem presented itself about a year ago, when UNC Hospitals began installing a WiFi system throughout the medical center. “Once the hospitals’ own wireless system was in place, we realized this could be an opportunity for us to use wireless handheld devices instead of pagers or cell phones,” Rogers said.

So, Rogers asked ServiceHub if this was possible. ServiceHub then re-wrote the mobile portion of their customized software for UNC Hospitals that enabled the interpreters to access the ServiceHub system from handheld wireless devices.

At that point, Reyes-Alonso tested the system with several wireless devices, including the iPod Touch and Web-enabled cell phones. Of the half dozen or so devices he tested, he found the iPod Touch to be the easiest to use and the most effective, Reyes-Alonso said.

All 26 interpreters began carrying an iPod Touch in early September 2009. With the iPod Touch, the interpreters are always connected, no matter where they might be inside UNC Hospitals. When an interpreter responds to a request, all the other interpreters can see that response almost instantly, so the requester doesn’t get calls from 10 interpreters all at once. In addition, many tasks that used to require a computer – such as consulting a bilingual medical dictionary – can now be done through the iPod Touch.

“The iPod Touch has greatly reduced a lot of the frustrations we used to have with our pagers and our cell phones.”

“The iPod Touch has greatly reduced a lot of the frustrations we used to have with our pagers and our cell phones,” Reyes-Alonso said. “I love it.”

Rogers cites additional advantages.

“Now that we’re using the hospitals’ own wireless system, if the system goes down, then we’ll be dealing with our own people to get it back up, instead of having to call the phone company and wait for them to take care of it.” Plus, Rogers said, the monthly cost to his department to lease their iPod Touches from ServiceHub is about half what it cost for the same number of cell phones.

Wynholds says UNC Hospitals was the first of its hospital clients to fully implement the mobile version of its system. Several other hospitals are now thinking about following UNC Hospitals’ example, he said.

“UNC has really embraced the technology, and they have worked hard to help us understand how to make it work effectively in the hospital environment,” he said.

“We’ve learned a lot in working with UNC over the years, and we’ve pretty much allowed the product to evolve in line with their specifications.”