California Plans to Use AI for Healthcare Translations

By: Sam Watanuki | Last updated: Jun 19, 2024

California is embarking on a groundbreaking initiative to use artificial intelligence (AI) for translating healthcare documents. This move aims to improve access to health and social services information in one of the nation’s most linguistically diverse states.

With over 200 languages spoken, the state hopes to make vital information more accessible to non-English speakers.

Challenges in Traditional Translation

Translating medical terms can be tricky. Words like “cardiac arrest” and “intoxicado” can have different meanings in various Spanish-speaking countries, highlighting the complexities of translation.

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This initiative aims to streamline and standardize translations, reducing the potential for errors and misunderstandings.

Role of Generative AI

Generative AI, a type of artificial intelligence that learns from vast amounts of data, is at the forefront of this initiative.

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AI platforms like ChatGPT and Google’s Neural Machine Translation can process huge volumes of text quickly, potentially translating documents in minutes instead of hours. This technology is seen as a natural progression in medical translation.

Human Oversight is Crucial

Despite the advancements in AI, human oversight remains crucial. Rithy Lim, a seasoned interpreter, emphasizes that AI cannot replace the human elements of compassion and empathy.

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Human editors will oversee and edit AI translations to ensure accuracy and cultural sensitivity, maintaining the quality of translations.

Addressing Language Barriers

A survey by the California Health Care Foundation found that 30% of Spanish speakers struggle to explain their health issues to doctors, compared to 16% of English speakers.

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By leveraging AI, the state aims to close this communication gap, making healthcare more accessible to non-English speakers and improving overall health outcomes.

Financial and Efficiency Benefits

AI has the potential to save money and increase efficiency in translating healthcare documents. Currently, human translators handle these tasks, which can be time-consuming and costly.

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With AI, the state can translate more documents into more languages, reaching a wider audience and ensuring timely access to vital information.


Expanding AI Use in Healthcare

California’s Health and Human Services Agency plans to start with written materials but hopes to expand AI use to other areas, such as websites and call centers.

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This broader application could revolutionize how healthcare information is disseminated, making it easier for patients to access and understand.


Ethical and Cultural Considerations

Sejin Paik, a doctoral candidate at Boston University, points out that AI models are often trained from a Western perspective, which could lead to misinterpretations.

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Ensuring diverse voices in AI development is essential to address ethical concerns and ensure translations respect cultural nuances.


Success Stories in AI Healthcare

AI is already making strides in healthcare, diagnosing conditions like diabetic retinopathy and analyzing mammograms.

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The success of these applications supports the potential for AI in medical translation, offering a promising tool to enhance patient care and accessibility.


AI's Limitations

Despite its potential, AI has limitations. It can sometimes invent sentences or phrases not present in the original text, a phenomenon known as “hallucination.”

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Addressing these flaws is critical to ensure the reliability and accuracy of AI-generated translations, preventing misinformation.


Community Feedback and Adaptation

Ching Wong, an experienced translator, highlights the importance of community feedback in refining AI translations.

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Understanding local language nuances, like the translation of “breast cancer” to “chest cancer” in Chinese, is vital for accurate communication. Engaging with communities will help adapt AI tools to better serve diverse populations.


Looking Ahead

Mark Ghaly, Secretary of California’s Health and Human Services Agency, is optimistic about the future of AI in healthcare translations. While AI offers significant opportunities, he stresses that it will not replace humans.

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The goal is to use technology to enhance human efforts, ensuring everyone has access to accurate and culturally sensitive healthcare information.