The U.S. is increasingly multi-lingual. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015 people in homes in the U.S. spoke more than 350 different languages. Hospitals and healthcare clinics often employ translators or subscribe to translation services to help patients and physicians communicate about symptoms and treatment. But COVID-19 bombarded medical and healthcare resources starting in 2020, creating an urgent need for translation services with patients arriving at clinical facilities. The massive numbers of patients with COVID-19 often taxed existing language translation resources. This is actually an international problem; I recently spoke with a pediatric emergency department physician in Turkey who told me how they have translators on staff during the day and use online subscription translation services at night to help care for patients who immigrated from Syria and Afghanistan.

Japanese software developer Sourcenext originally launched Pocketalk in 2018. Pocktalk is a pocket language translation device originally developed to support travelers and travel industry service providers. It listens to voice inputs in one language and translates them into both text and voice in the desired language. It also has a camera that can capture images of text and translate that content as well. Pocketalk first saw action with the pandemic shortly after the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored in the port of Yokohama, Japan in February 2020. According to a Pocketalk news release, the company donated Pocketalk handheld devices to facilitate communications between cruise ship passengers and the Japanese-speaking first responders. The devices also helped reduce human translators’ exposure to the virus.

Due to the glaring need for language translation between patients and clinical workers, Pocketalk shifted its use case focus from travelers to healthcare workers and first responders who work in multilingual communities. Chances are good that the greatly curtailed market for leisure travel also helped Pocketalk’s leadership recognize the need for the shift. Pocketalk recently announced the Pocketalk Plus, which the company says is the first HIPAA-compliant handheld translator.

The Pocketalk Plus translator supports 82 languages. The device display is 40% larger than the screen on the original model and is readable from 6 feet. In addition to a 3-watt speaker, the Pocketalk Plus has dual microphones with integrated noise cancellation to help healthcare personnel in noisy clinical settings. Users can clean the Pocketalk Plus with a single swipe with an alcohol wipe so the device can be ready for another patient, according to the developer.

The Pocketalk Plus is a compelling example of a general purpose digital consumer product that discovered a new purpose saving lives and subsequently added features to support the handheld’s vital healthcare role.