An app to cross language barriers in medical care

Two LiU master’s students from India have developed a tool to cross language barriers between personnel and patients in the medical care system. Their language apps are now being tested in several clinics.

Imagine a man who has recently fled from Syria and comes to a Swedish emergency department with severe chest pain. He can hardly speak Swedish or English, no one among the personnel can speak Arabic, and it’s difficult to get hold of someone who can interpret.

The doctor or nurse brings out a pair of tablet computers with a specially designed language app. Questions are displayed on the tablet, and the computer reads them aloud to the patient in Arabic. He, in turn, uses the app to give answers that the personnel understand. They can rapidly determine what the problem is, make a diagnosis and start treatment without unnecessary delay.

The scenario above is just one example of how a new tool for communication across language barriers can make a difference in medical care provision. Responsible for the newly developed app is the small start-up company Worldish, and its founders Naveen Sasidharan and Abhishek Jacob Chethicatt.

Met in India

They arrived at LiU three years ago from Kerala in south-eastern India to take masters’ programmes in electronics engineering and industrial engineering and management, respectively.

“We had actually met earlier, in India, at a meeting that Business Sweden had arranged in our hometown of Kochi,” remembers Naveen Sasidharan. “I had long had an ambition of starting a company and was trying to decide between studying in Sweden or Germany. I ended up in Sweden because I heard that there was a positive climate for innovation and entrepreneurship here. And I’m glad that I made the right decision. Now, I’m simply living my dream!”

The two master’s students realised early on that language barriers cause problems in the medical care system. In the worst case the problems may be life-threatening. They talked to doctors at the Emergency Department at Linköping University Hospital, who encouraged them to try to find a solution. They suggested that the important first meeting between healthcare personnel and the patient should be a particular focus.

This led to the idea to develop a digital tool for communication across language barriers. A tool that could improve interaction, help communicate instantly and reduce costs.

By chance, Naveen Sasidharan and Abhishek Jacob Chethicatt came into contact with LiU Holding, and the innovation advisers there helped them give their ideas a more concrete form and provided impetus in the right direction.

“Without them, we would never have reached where we are today,” says Abhishek Jacob Chethicatt.

A prototype was ready to test in 2017. The app – Helen – contains a large number of medical questions and answers in several languages. In addition to Swedish and English, the app can process Arabic, Somali and Dari (which is used in Afghanistan and other countries).

“These are languages spoken by large numbers of immigrants in Sweden, and there is a severe shortage of authorised interpreters here. We are also working with Tigrinya, which is used in Eritrea,” says Naveen Sasidharan.

The app is now being tested at five clinics in Östergötland: an emergency department, a gynaecology clinic, two local healthcare centres and one clinic in the Swedish dental service. The app has been tailored for use in each of these centres.

“We are in dialogue with doctors and other healthcare personnel who use the app. They find that it is useful in various situations. This is very exciting,” says Abhishek Jacob Chethicatt.

Help in commercialisation

Worldish currently employs 12 people, several of them students who work part-time. They work with programming, marketing, translation and creating the relevant medical content. The company also has an advisory board, whose members include doctors.

The company is housed in the Lead company incubator in Mjärdevi Science Park, close to Linköping University. Here, Worldish and other start-ups obtain help in making the transition to successful commercial enterprise.

“We’ve received a great deal of support from Linköping University and the innovation office there,” says Naveen Sasidharan.

In 2017, Worldish was selected as a “rivstart” (hot-off-the-blocks) winner by Swedbank, a major Swedish bank. They received prize money of SEK 250,000 and access to a network of investors and tailored training programmes.

They hope to become established in Sweden, the other Nordic countries and Germany within five years, possibly also the US and Canada.

“For us it’s just fantastic to be involved with this and contribute to people gaining access to the medical help they need without delay,” says Abhishek Jacob Chethicatt.

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