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Hospitals in Japan turn to high-tech to treat language barriers

Multilingual AI service among new offerings to help staff deal with foreigners

Fujitsu's wearable translation device. Multilingual products like this will help Japan treat foreign patients, especially those visiting small clinics and rural hospitals.

TOKYO -- As the number of foreign patients in Japan grows, companies are racing to develop multilingual products and services to help hospitals cope with the inevitable language barriers.

Medical startup ShareMedical plans to introduce a telephone interpretation service using artificial intelligence by the end of August. Fujitsu will follow with an interpretation terminal before March 2019, while NEC will roll out a multilingual receptionist kiosk in 2020.

Over 28 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2017, three times more than a decade ago, and the number of foreign workers in the country is also rising. As a result, Japanese hospitals are seeing more foreign patients.

ShareMedical's service lets hospital staff and patients converse over the phone in their own language, translating phone conversations in real time via the cloud. The service identifies what languages the people are speaking, translates the spoken words into text, then converts the text into voice data that is transmitted to the participants in a synthesized voice.

Each part of a conversation takes about a second to process, and because the translation engine is equipped with AI, long-winded or disjointed replies come out sounding more natural than those using conventional machine translation.

The service can handle 17 languages and employs standard telephony, eliminating the need for special equipment or software.

ShareMedical will charge between 20 and 30 yen (18 and 27 cents) for each conversation, compared with human telephone interpretation services, which cost about 300 yen per minute.

The startup, which was established in 2014, hopes to attract 4,000 corporate and individual customers -- including retail shops and tourists -- in fiscal 2018.

NEC's receptionist kiosk assists patients with check-in, billing, and finding their way to the appropriate department. It can also show approximate wait times.

The device works in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. When equipped with a camera and NEC's face authentication technology, the kiosk will also allow return patients to check in without the need for any supporting documentation.

Meanwhile, Fujitsu has developed a wearable, hands-free device that translates face-to-face conversations in Japanese, English and Chinese, making it easy for medical staff to communicate with the patients they are treating.

The company used its experience in mobile communications to develop the card-size device, which is equipped with a high-sensitivity microphone that minimizes ambient noise.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in 2016, a majority of Japanese medical institutions had problems treating foreign patients, including 35% that failed to recoup medical costs.

Unlike large urban hospitals, small clinics and hospital in rural areas find it difficult and costly to recruit multilingual staff. As the problem becomes more acute, competition to provide economical automatic language services for medical institutions is expected to heat up.

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