Translation goes high-tech
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 21, 2005 12:00 AM
CyraCom makes splash in health care

Jane Larson
When playwright Edmond Rostand created his play about Cyrano de Bergerac, a man who used his talent with language to help another man woo a woman, Rostand could not have known that a century later Cyrano's name would go high-tech.

The idea of one person speaking for another was the inspiration for CyraCom International Inc., a Tucson company whose founders invented a dual-handset telephone now used in 700 hospitals and health care facilities nationwide. The patented phone and accompanying translation services allow English-speaking medical professionals to converse with patients who speak any of more than 150 languages.

When a medical worker calls CyraCom's translation center, he or she is connected to a translator who speaks the patient's language and is trained in medical terminology. The company's CyraPhone allows provider and patient to speak directly to the translator, a process that eliminates handing the phone back and forth and saves precious time in emergencies.

Large hospitals might have staffers trained in the most common foreign languages. Others might have outside translators on call or ask patients to bring along a bilingual friend or relative.

Each of those options has drawbacks, though, said Michael Greenbaum, CyraCom's chief executive officer.

For one, CyraCom has seen the number of languages being requested jump by 60 percent over the past five years. Its most requested language last year was Spanish, followed by Russian, Vietnamese, Korean and Polish.

And translators who aren't familiar with medical terms take more time to translate and increase the risk of errors. That option also raises issues of patient privacy.

The company employs some translators full time and has several hundred others under independent contracts.

InfoWorld magazine named CyraCom one of the 100 most innovative corporate information-technology solutions for 2004. The company also was ranked No. 446 on Inc. magazine's 2004 list of the nation's 500 fastest-growing private companies. The company started when two Chicago high school friends, one of them a University of Arizona student, invented the dual-handset phone for use in translation services. They got a patent in 1995, moved the company to Tucson and initially focused on corporate and tourism markets, then added health care, insurance, and freight forwarding, among other industries.

When Greenbaum joined the firm, he suggested specializing in health care. "We couldn't develop skills in every market segment," he said.

Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center employs its own Spanish translators, but has used CyraCom for five years for languages ranging from German and Croatian to Chinese and Farsi. The hospital even used it once when a patient was trying to communicate with family members in Morse code, said Sandra Corder, director of patient relations and volunteers.

"We support the patient's right to communicate, and we try to communicate however it is meaningful to the patient," she said.