In Germany, Asylum Seekers' Medical Needs Are Being Contained : Parallels Providing care to asylum seekers has been a challenge, not least due to language barriers. Two entrepreneurs have turned shipping containers into mobile clinics, with 24-hour access to translators.

In Germany, Asylum Seekers' Medical Needs Are Being Contained

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Here is one effect of the flow of refugees into Germany from the Middle East and elsewhere. Germany's health care system has more than 1 million more people to take care of. The trouble is not just the sheer numbers, but also an inability to communicate. Think about all the languages. Now two German entrepreneurs, moved by the plight of asylum seekers, have come up with a way of bridging the language gap in health care. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson met with them and brings us this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Maher Murad has a bad sore throat and needs to see a doctor. But the 19-year-old Iraqi doesn't speak German. And the German physician he goes to see at his refugee shelter doesn't speak Arabic. The language barrier poses a serious problem until Dr. Martin Scherer turns on the computer in his exam room.


NELSON: A female translator appears on the screen, and thus begins a three-way quest in two languages to find what is ailing Murad.

MARTIN SCHERER: (Speaking in German).

NELSON: Scherer asks the young man about his symptoms.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The woman online translates and follows up with more questions to make sure the doctor gets every detail he needs.

SCHERER: (Speaking in German).

NELSON: Scherer says having quick access to hundreds of translators speaking 50 languages and versed in medical terminology has made it a lot easier for him and other doctors to treat residents at this refugee shelter.

SCHERER: Lots of things in medicine are not objective. How is the complaint? How is the headache? How does it feel exactly? And therefore, this system helps us because they are trained and they can avoid misunderstandings. And in face-to-face translating, it also works. But our experience is the training and the professionalism is often not as good as the system.

NELSON: Not to mention, having multiple translators in a doctor's office would make it rather cramped. The doctor's online access to translation services as well as the reconfigured, high-tech container the exam room is located in, were dreamed up by Harald Neidhardt and Mirko Bass. The Hamburg entrepreneurs met while introducing cutting-edge technology to the port city in 2014. Like many Germans, the two men were moved by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of desperate asylum-seekers last year who overwhelmed local governments, including the one in Hamburg. Neidhardt recalls conditions at the city's main train station last summer.

HARALD NEIDHARDT: And you see the makeshift tents of the doctor's offices which don't have a floor. And there's just a triage and some blue gloves here and some defibrillator on the left side just to sort of pretend this is something that was medical.

NELSON: He came up with the idea of creating portable doctor's offices in refurbished shipping containers equipped with Wi-Fi. Neidhardt adds the goal was to make the clinics inexpensive and easy to set up at refugee intake centers. Bass proposed enhancing the initiative by adding a network of partners, including the long-distance translation services, which are provided by an Austrian firm.

MIRKO BASS: This is a little bit like Uber. Yeah, you know, you press the button. The magic happens - not the taxi arrives, the translator arrives.

NELSON: If a patient wants privacy, the camera on the computer screen can be turned off, Bass says. The tech company he works for funded the prototype, which he says costs in the high five digits. A million-dollar donation by a wealthy Hamburg family is allowing them to build 10 more of the portable primary care clinics, which the city will pay to operate. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Hamburg.

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