Health Tech | Can Canopy Break the Language Barrier in Medicine?

Interview conducted by Shiv Gaglani, MBA

Regardless of where you trained you've likely encountered a patient with whom you've had difficulty communicating because he or she did not speak English. The options may have been limited: you either had to learn the language or you had to rely on family members or official medical interpreters. There may be a third viable option now: the Canopy Medical Interpreter. We had the opportunity to speak with Jerrit Tan, the company's CEO, to learn more about how he sees his app transforming the field of language interpretation in health care.

How did you come up with the idea for Canopy?

I grew up in an immigrant household, with parents and relatives who did not speak English. When they needed to see the doctor, it was always one of the children who had to take off from school and accompany them. We were not the only family that had to deal with this, and I knew there had to be a better way to do things.

Can you describe the use cases for Canopy?

The current ways of getting language interpreters for patients are time consuming and inefficient at best, and nonexistent at worse. While most major hospitals have in-person interpreters or telephone interpreters, health care providers do not like using them because they are difficult to use. This leads to poor patient care, and increases risks for the health care systems. We know it has to start with the health care provider, so our goal is to make language translation services easier to use for them, and to keep costs down for the health care system.

When a health care provider interacts with patients who do not speak English in the US, he or she can open the Canopy Medical Translator app, select the patient's language, and use Canopy's interactive library of medical phrases in that language to communicate with the patient. The patient can see the phrases in his or her language, and also hear the audio. Whether the health care provider needs to ask questions about the patient's history, perform a physical exam, explain lab or imaging results, or give updates about the plan, Canopy can be used to facilitate that communication. If the patient wants to communicate back, there's a section for common patient responses. In the cases where a human interpreter is needed, Canopy enables one-touch calling of telephone medical interpreters over both cell signal and WiFi.

We see this as the future of language translation and interpretation for health care—use a scalable library of translated medical content when doing the routine things, and call an interpreter with ease if the situation becomes more complex or sensitive.

What is your traction like thus far?

In the 6 months since we've launched, we have 40,000 physicians, nurses, physician assistants, medical students, and nursing students using Canopy. We are also working with organizations like Visiting Nurse Services of New York on pilots to prove that Canopy can hit the trifecta of health IT: improve patient care, improve patient and provider satisfaction, and lower costs. We are a winner of the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research (NIH SBIR) program, and also a winner of PILOT Health Tech NYC, backed by the city of New York, to bring innovative health technology to health care systems. In New York City, 24% of the population does not speak English, so it's a big challenge for the hospitals to provide quality care quickly to these patients, and to keep costs down for language services.

Some interesting use cases we have heard of so far include:

  • Medical residents at New York Presbyterian Hospital are using the app for rounds with post-op patients.
  • Medical students traveling to Haiti to run a free clinic in rural areas are using Canopy's Haitian Creole section to communicate.
  • Nurses at the Boston Marathon used Canopy to communicate with the thousands of foreign competitors in the race.
  • Cardiology fellows use Canopy with patients in one of New York Presbyterian Hospital's outpatient cardiology clinics.

Do you have plans for Canopy for the next year? How about 5 years?

We envision a future where health care providers no longer have to dislike using language translation services. Whenever a provider encounters a patient who does not speak the same language as them, they can have Canopy in the palm of their hands to quickly communicate and exchange information. Our vision is that this will work not only in the US for non-English speakers, but globally wherever there is a language barrier in health care.

On the product front, in the next year we will add more languages, including Polish, Somali, Hmong, and Dari. In the US, there are large centralized populations of these language speakers. For example, did you know that one in three U.S. Somalis live in Minnesota? Canopy can help the health care systems there take care of these patients. We are also building an application programming interface (API) to enable other programs and applications (such as those on desktops) to pull in Canopy's content and calling features.

What is your background in medical technology?

In my previous career, I was at Google working on the search and advertising businesses. Google is a very good training ground for coming up with big moonshot ideas that really impact the world, how to start small when executing those ideas, and then how to scale fast once those ideas proved their potential. This is what we're doing at Canopy.

Keywords: Nurses, Community Health, Patient Care, Minnesota, New York City, Telephone, Students, Medical, Students, Nursing, Communication Barriers, Language, Delivery of Health Care, Biomedical Technology, Personal Satisfaction, National Institutes of Health (U.S.), Haiti, Physician Assistants, Emigrants and Immigrants, Translating

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