Hospital app that 'speaks' in dialect

The iCOM app allows nurse Sheree Ye to communicate more effectively with Cantonese speakers such as Madam Kan Wan Sin.
PHOTO: Hospital app that 'speaks' in dialect

SINGAPORE - When nurse Sheree Ye needs to communicate with a patient who speaks only Cantonese, she no longer needs to play charades or wait for a colleague to translate.

The 22-year-old can now whip out her smartphone and use a new app that translates the health-care instructions she has to give patients, especially elderly ones who communicate only in Cantonese.

"It's so much more convenient," said the nurse from Changi General Hospital (CGH). "Patients do not have to guess what I am saying. Nurses can communicate more efficiently and attend to more patients as a result."

Called the Integrated Healthcare Communicator (iCOM), the Android app contains 100 Cantonese translations of phrases commonly used in a hospital setting. The phrases include "Please put this tablet under your tongue" and "Please do not get out of the bed alone".

App users just tap on the appropriate phrase displayed in English, and it gets read out in Cantonese. For more complex actions, the app calls up images to help convey what is needed.

If a nurse wants to, say, put a patient on an intravenous drip, a picture of a drip will appear as the instruction is read out in dialect.

Nurses can also switch to the phonetics option and listen to dialect voice-overs, so they can learn Cantonese in their own time.

The app helps overcome a longstanding problem in the nursing industry, said CGH nursing informatics deputy director Wong Kok Cheong.

"I joined nursing some 22 years ago, and the language barrier issue has not gone away," he said. "It could become worse with a younger generation of nurses."

About half of the nurses at CGH are under 35, and few speak dialect. The hospital says that, every day, two in five nurses call on a colleague to help them with translation.

iCOM is the brainchild of nine CGH nurses who developed it with the help of Integrated Health Information Systems and a $10,000 grant from the Eastern Health Alliance's Centre for Innovation. It is believed to be the first smartphone app for hospitals to feature a local dialect.

Currently, it is available only in Cantonese and on Android, but there are plans to expand it to include Hokkien, Hakka and Hainanese as well as Malay, and to add 300 phrases. CGH plans to develop an iPhone version as well.

iCOM will be available for all CGH nurses from Nurses Day, which falls on Aug 1 here.

Madam Kan Wan Sin, 83, who speaks mainly Cantonese, says the app is a godsend when she visits the hospital. "At least now I understand missy (the nurse)."

kashc@sph.com.sg

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