In August last year, UCT medical student Saadiq Moolla launched the Mobile Xhosa and Mobile Zulu websites to help himself and his English-speaking peers communicate with patients in their mother tongue.
That website, as described in the Daily News section of the UCT website, was a neat solution for the most part. However, it's only good where there's a (fast) internet connection and strong mobile reception. In rural areas of the country, these can be especially unreliable.
So Moolla, under the guise of NightForge Studios, launched a mobile application to the same effect on 13 January. Mobile Translate M.D., as the Android-native app is called, can be used fully offline - the only time you need an internet connection is for downloading.
Besides bypassing the need for an internet connection and the data costs that come with it, the app-platform has a number of other benefits, says Moolla.
"It is much faster, and is much more convenient as it is a native (installed on the phone) app so is easier to use than a website which must be accessed via the phone's browser."
"The most exciting feature that we were able to implement because of this move is text-to-speech, where the phone gives the correct pronunciation of the phrase. This is particularly important where users aren't familiar with the language they are translating into, but can also help with learning the new language.
"This app will also introduce several new languages that weren't previously available on the websites, namely Afrikaans, French and Spanish. French in particular is unexpectedly important in the SA setting as we have many African nationals from Francophone countries, so the app will hopefully help to overcome this barrier (there are no French translators in our hospitals)."
For the moment, text-to-speech is only available for Spanish and French, but making this universally available is one of the improvements NightForge Studios is working hard to realise.
They are also working to include all eleven of South Africa's official languages, while extending the list of phrases available in each module.
"We ask that people contact us about phrases that they commonly use at the doctor, so that we can add them to the list," says Ashraf Moolla, Saadiq's younger brother and chief coder of the application.
Mobile Translate M.D. is currently available on Android and Blackberry devices, but plans are afoot to make it available to Apple and Windows users, too.
"There's quite a bit of research on language barriers," says the younger Moolla, who studies actuarial science at UCT. "One of the solutions that a lot of people currently is they get a translator. That could be someone like a member of the maintenance staff or a family member.
"The problem is that that is a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality rules. The doctor-patient relationship also suffers. You feel less empathy, patients feel like doctors are less approachable, and it's also less efficient.
"Obviously, the big issue is that patients have to understand what the doctor is saying. That's critical. That's really the ultimate goal."
The phrase-dictionary advises doctors on everything from greetings to enquiries about a patient's history and explanations of how to properly use any medicine that may be prescribed.
"They go from the start of the consultation right through the end across a broad range of subjects," he says. "If you want phrases related to the heart, you can click on the cardio-vascular module and you'll find phrases related to the heart. It's got all the useful phrases that you might need.
"We're also aiming this at students. At UCT, students have to learn Afrikaans and isiXhosa, so we think that, while this isn't a replacement for those courses and textbooks, it could be used as a supplement."
Moolla cautions that doctors and students shouldn't rely solely on the app for their multilingual responsibilities.
"One of the conditions that we have to use this app is that you should have some level of training [in that language]. You don't want to be speaking in a language that you have absolutely no idea about. You're a doctor, so anything you say to your patient is critical, and you don't want to be misunderstood."
The team is constantly revising the app, and users can look forward to the addition of a search function, as well as the ability for users to control the app using their voice only, which would eliminate rhythm-busting glances down at a phone or tablet.
Mobile Translate M.D. is free to download, and for those that don't use either Android or BlackBerry, the websites are still operational.
(Mobile Translate M.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.)
Text: Yusuf Omar. Image: Raymond Botha.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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