A New Device Developed in Duluth Can Save Lives
It could be the stuff of nightmares: You have a medical crisis in a foreign country and no one in the hospital can speak your language as you desperately try to explain your emergency.
Or it could even be a less frantic encounter; say you are a Hmong-speaking immigrant seeking medical help at the office of a St. Paul doctor who does not speak Hmong.
Now imagine that in the emergency room or in the doctor’s office, there is an interactive, handheld device that speaks your language, knows your culture, can ask you pertinent health questions and can convey your responses accurately to the medical personnel on hand.
The sigh of relief would be internationally understood, which is perhaps why an international market has opened up for Phrazer, a cutting-edge device developed in Duluth by GeaCom Inc.
“We’re a pioneering product. There is nothing – nothing – in the world like what we do,” says Company CEO Mathew Johnson, who came to his brainchild after years of experience in a variety of enterprises that involved interacting with different cultures.
The Phrazer, which weighs less than 2 pounds, can work in any language and currently offers 100 in its language library. Using a touch screen, a patient can respond to a number of spoken questions while literally pointing to physical areas of concern via graphics and video on the screen. The caregiver can then see, on that device, what the issues are and use the Phrazer to ask additional questions or relate some answers.
“An onscreen provider comes on and says, ‘No one here speaks your language, but don’t worry. I’m here to help you,’” explains Cassandra Bachtell, GeaCom’s vice president of content development.
Phrazer is not simply a translator, however. Mathew well knows that direct translation might sometimes land you into misunderstandings or hidden cultural pitfalls.
Before pursuing his dream to produce Phrazer, he worked on the management team of Kawaguchi America, a division of Kawaguchi Japan. As president of Veldhiezen Group Inc., a Duluth company that worked in digital video communications, he contracted with Fortune 500 companies such as Cargill, Honeywell and Medtronic.
Working with several foreign companies and businesspeople gave him insight into the importance of cultural nuances with language. He learned to appreciate the highly polite culture of the Japanese people while working for Kawaguchi Japan and how easy it might be to deliver an unintentional insult.
“Translation – not only is it not communication,” says Mathew, “it’s miscommunication.”
In developing Phrazer, he has tried to catch those cultural nuances that will build trust between a patient and health care provider, even with a language barrier.
To that end, GeaCom has hired native speakers of the 100 languages currently available, and they’ve helped create culturally sensitive programming in their language. “We do specifically look for native speakers – all the way down to the dialect level,” says Cassandra.
Creating the right technology has been a challenge for the company. Phrazer was formally announced at an event in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in March 2010.
It’s had a few setbacks since then, such as the loss of Japanese engineers with whom the company had been working during the 2011 tsunami.
During the year, GeaCom has revised its software and hardware via several models.
“We now have the most advanced portable system on the planet; here, not in Silicon Valley,” says Mathew. “We’ve done it; it’s very exciting.”
GeaCom’s headquarters is well situated in Duluth, the company’s managers say. There are many resources to tap with medical programs at both College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota Duluth and the extensive medical community here.
The company chose to keep the manufacturing in Minnesota at the already established Creation Technologies in St. Peter, Minnesota. By the end of 2011, GeaCom was fulfilling orders. Mathew said the company would ramp up manufacturing in a slow, controlled manner – though the orders are there.
“The demand in the market is not shrinking, it’s growing dramatically,” Mathew says.
“We’ve seem to hit the mark,” says Cassandra. “A lot of people are standing outside our doors right now saying they are ready to receive this.”
For Dr. Stephen Hadley, a physician at St Luke’s Rheumatology Associates and a member of GeaCom’s Medical Advisory Board, Phrazer adds another important aspect for medical care. On it, a patient can confirm consent for procedures.
“Informed consent is crucial,” says Stephen, “from a medical and legal standpoint.”
Phrazer has been field tested in Honduras, where it was used with a medical team visiting from the Mayo Clinic. Besides being used by patients, the Phrazer was also used to show videos about personal and oral hygiene and basic first aid to children there.
Phrazer has been used in Afghanistan by the military, says Stephen. “The opportunities are endless; they certainly aren’t having any problems selling it.”
Airlines and disaster relief groups also have expressed interest in using Phrazer and there could be other business options.
Mathew’s vision, though, was to start with a device that could save lives and create trust for health care.
He’s seen the benefit of Phrazer with patients who realize that they can communicate despite language or literacy barriers. “They’re seeing, basically, a lifeline. We’ve seen them breakdown and cry (with relief).”
Knowing the importance of this work has helped him get beyond the challenges of technology and logistics.
“You’re going to run into hard times,” says Mathew, “but you don’t always run into opportunities like this.”
Manda Lillie is editor of the Statesman at the University of Minnesota Duluth.