Hospitals are looking to thrust into the future how they break down language barriers — long a thorny issue in emergency departments and doctors’ offices — by harnessing mobile technology.

The urgent need to close those language gaps has become more pronounced for hospital leaders in recent years, as the Affordable Care Act brings more previously uninsured, non-English-speaking patients into the system. Addressing such barriers becomes all the more pressing given the Joint Commission estimates that communication issues were the root cause of 59 percent of adverse events.

Health care organizations, such as Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, N.Y., have looked to leverage mobile technology to vastly improve language interpretation. As recently as May, the 438-bed community and teaching health care system often was forced to call in interpreters, who could sometimes take as long as two hours to arrive. Plus, they regularly would charge a minimum of two hours pay when five minutes was all that was needed to do the job.

Now, the hospital can dial up an interpreter for 11 languages on video using a tablet — along with about 100 more available with no video feed — and pay by the minute. That’s allowed the system to deliver quicker care and save about $100,000 in the first full year of its use, says Lance Merry, patient access manager. The program originally was conceived as a six-month pilot starting in June. But system leaders saw the benefits, and are moving full-steam ahead with 75 tablets spread across all units from the ED to physician offices.

“It took off so quickly that, from the executive level, they pushed me to go-live immediately elsewhere,” Merry says. They’re now exploring use of the technology on smartphones, and eventually may use it to provide care in the home, he adds.

Video interpretation services are relatively common in hospitals, says Frederick Hobby, president and CEO of the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association. Less prevalent, however, is the use of such high-tech, mobile-based applications; many still use cumbersome monitors on carts.

Interpretation services are one of the most costly items when it comes to addressing disparities in health care, Hobby says. Inadequate interpretation can contribute to readmissions, medical errors and malpractice lawsuits. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that among patients with limited English skill, the average length of stay was 0.75 to 1.47 days higher when professional interpretation services weren’t used.

St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, Idaho, also recently started a pilot using two video interpretation units, with one in the ED and another floating throughout the hospital. The preference there is always to use a live interpreter, but it can be hard to find one quickly enough for walk-in patients, says Malena Rodriguez, language services coordinator. The small computer screens are more convenient than their old method of using phone interpreters, and they help to pick up visual cues, allowing for sign language.

“You cannot predict when they’re coming, so we needed to provide a different tool, especially for the hearing impaired. It’s been wonderful having this device,” Rodriguez says