Pain translation technology could improve ER care

March 28, 2023

The Rhode Island School of Design's Center for Complexity (CfC) has developed a new tool that helps non-English patients accurately describe their pain for emergency care providers. Among the many societal barriers to clinical outcomes is communication. If you don’t speak the same language as your healthcare provider, important things will be lost in translation.

That's especially true in crisis situations such as the Emergency Department, where studies have found that non-English speaking patients have higher morbidity and mortality rates. To tackle that problem, the University of Rhode Island School of Design's is developing technology aimed at translating pain. 

Researchers at the center have partnered with Seattle-based "human experience design" company WongDoody to develop Say Your Pain: The Universal Pain Translator, a digital health tool that enables users to describe pain symptoms to care providers. The platform pairs dozens of common pain symptoms, such as throbbing, cramping, burning, and piercing, with animations, enabling care providers to gain a better understanding of a patient's condition and plan care accordingly. 

“Humans are complex social organisms whose health is shaped more by the environments they live in and the people they care for than the clinical services they receive," Justin Cook, founding director of the CfC, said in a press release. "The frontier of improving human health is connecting the dots between our biology, our environment and our social lives. This is a complex challenge that demands a creative solution.” 

To develop the platform, researchers worked with animators who are experiences in semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols and their use in interpretation, along with more than 30 clinicians. They've designed the tool to be used on most connected devices and, initially, in three core languages: Spanish, Mandarin, and Ukrainian (due to the fact that many Ukrainian refugees are now seeking care from American and Canadian providers). 

Cook sees this project as a means of addressing one of the biggest social drivers of health (SDOH) and a key aspect of improving health outcomes for underserved populations. 

“Our aim, starting with pain, is to dive directly into the cultural, social and environmental factors that are at the core of human health and develop solutions that make good health and wellbeing available to everyone," he said. "This is critical work in our efforts to achieve health equity.” 

It also addresses a considerable challenge in emergency healthcare: Understanding a patient's condition and being able to design a quick and effective care plan. 

“Justin and the team at the CfC are committed to bringing humanity back to healthcare," added Grace Francis, WongDoody's global chief creative and design officer, in the press release. "From their deep research and understanding, we were able to spot a design opportunity that can help patients advocate for themselves in medical situations. We hope it will help doctors diagnose faster and more accurately when there’s a language barrier. This has the potential to save lives and could make ER visits less traumatic for patients who don’t speak English." 

HealthLeaders release