The newest advance at Howard County General Hospital is neither a large and expensive medical device nor an improvement in surgical procedures, but rather a computer screen — and a service — that allows medical providers and patients to communicate with each other in more than 170 languages and dialects.
Simple as it sounds, it is an important improvement.
The system, called Martti, for "My accessible real-time trusted interpreter," links the hospital by video to trained medical interpreters working for the Columbus, Ohio-based Language Access Network. At any time of day, on every day of the year, patients who do not speak English well or at all — or patients who are deaf or hearing impaired — can have better conversations with medical providers.
"This gives us instant access to a translator," said Victor A. Broccolino, president and CEO of Howard County General Hospital. "There really is nothing like it."
There are nine Martti devices at Howard County General Hospital, as well as one at Chase Brexton Health Services in Columbia and one at Healthy Howard in Columbia. The system was launched at the hospital on Nov. 29. An event announcing its use was held Thursday at the Hawthorn Center in Columbia.
Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based nonprofit focused on health and wellness in Howard County, is paying for two-thirds of a two-year trial period of the service, according to Richard M. Krieg, the foundation's president and CEO. The remaining one-third is being paid for by the hospital.
The total cost for two years of Martti and all of the languages and dialects from Language Access Network's interpreters is $180,000, Krieg said. Last year alone, Howard County General spent more than $100,000 just on American Sign Language interpreters for its patients, according to Broccolino.
"This has been a great success story at the hospital," Broccolino said Thursday. "This is beyond the standard of care. We're ahead of everyone in the health care system in this regard."
The devices are spread out in a number of the hospital's departments. Since its launch, the hospital has used Martti 78 times for nearly 1,200 minutes, Broccolino said.
The most-needed language so far has been Spanish, followed by Chin, which is a dialect in Myanmar. The other languages interpreted have been Arabic, Creole-French, Farsi, Hakka, Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese.
"We've known now for well over 10 years that we have a large foreign-born population in Howard County," Krieg said. The 2010 census showed that 15.5 percent of Howard County residents are foreign-born.
"We found that there are many people in many different groups who are here and do not speak sufficient English" for complex health issues, he said.
When the Healthy Howard initiative first began in the county, staff members noted that there were at least 21 languages being spoken here, Liddy Garcia Bunuel, the agency's executive director, said Thursday.
Elisa Montalvo, the Hispanic Achievement Specialist for the county public school system, said that many parents in Howard do not speak any English or their English it not good enough to have an effective conversation with a health care provider.
Some go to other jurisdictions that might offer their own services or bring their own interpreter, sometimes a child. Some just make do without an interpreter, she said.
"A lot of the information gets lost in translation," she said. "A lot of misunderstandings occur."
One such situation is what led to Language Access Network's founding eight years ago, according to Andy Panos, the company's chief operating officer. His brother was in a motor vehicle accident in Mexico and confronted serious miscommunications between himself and those trying to help him.
"This situation goes on throughout the United States," Panos said. This system "empowers both a patient and a provider to communicate, to make sure what you're feeling — your anxieties, your pain — was being communicated properly and effectively.
"It makes an amazing difference," he said, "in a patient's life."