Web-Based Software Assists Limited English Proficiency Patients with Medications

Dr. Charles Lee

The familiar proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” means that difficult situations or problems often inspire creative solutions. This was the case for Dr. Charles Lee, president and founder of Polyglot Systems, Inc. (www.pgsi.com), which creates technology solutions for language access in health care.

Dr. Lee, who moved to the United States from Korea at age 7, saw that his grandmother’s pill bottles had instructions written in English that she was unable to read. He saw how frustrated she became and recognized that this must be a common occurrence for those with limited English proficiency.

“To me it’s just common sense,” said Dr. Lee, a board certified internal medicine physician. “If patients have difficulty understanding the English language, how are they expected to follow instructions if they cannot read or understand the instructions? How many medication errors are caused by language barriers?”

Last year, there were about four billion prescriptions written, not including over-the-counter medications, according to Dr. Lee. “Considering that almost 10 percent of our population has limited English proficiency, that would mean about 400 million prescriptions were given to patients who are limited English proficient,” he explained. “If you include English-speaking patients who have difficulty understanding health information, which is almost one-third of the population, this number approaches 1.5 billion prescriptions. The need and the benefits are obvious.”

Through the NIMHD Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Programs, a unique federal program that provides the opportunity for entrepreneurs to research and develop their innovative ideas and bring them to the commercial market, Dr. Lee’s firm received a grant to develop Meducation®. It is a web-based software service that allows healthcare providers and pharmacists to generate medication instructions and educational materials, such as visual medical demonstrations, in 19 languages and easy-to-read formats.

Approximately 38 customers use this product, including hospitals, health centers, retail pharmacies and clinicians, and it is available at more than 1,200 locations. Two studies from health facilities that use Meducation® demonstrated dramatic improvements in patient satisfaction and adherence to their medication when simpler instructions written in the patient’s preferred language were provided.

“Although we didn’t start our company with SBIR funding, our company wouldn’t have been able to develop our suite of technology solutions to reduce health disparities without it,” said Dr. Lee. “The SBIR program allowed us to try innovative ideas that would have been difficult to fund and create otherwise. It gave us credibility with customers, and provided networking opportunities with others within the minority health and health disparities community.”

As part of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Program, each year, NIMHD and other designated federal departments and agencies award a reserved portion of their research and development (R&D) funds to U.S. small businesses and to partnerships between small businesses and nonprofit research institutions to bring innovative technologies to market.

The objectives of this highly competitive program are to increase the participation of small businesses in federal R&D; to increase private sector commercialization of technology developed through Federal R&D; and to foster and encourage participation by socially and economically disadvantaged small businesses and women-owned business in the program. An overarching objective of NIMHD’s investments in SBIR/STTR programs is to ensure health disparity populations benefit from innovations leading to improved health outcomes.

NIMHD SBIR/STTR initiatives include:

  • Technologies for Improving Minority Health and Eliminating Health Disparities, aimed at stimulating a partnership of ideas and technologies between small business concerns (SBCs) and nonprofit research institutes
  • Development and Translation of Medical Technologies to Reduce Health Disparities, a partnership with the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) to support medical technologies that are effective, affordable, culturally acceptable and deliverable to those who need them
  • Innovations for Healthy Living-Improving Minority Health and Eliminating Health Disparities Initiative, to support the development of products, processes or services for commercialization with the aim of reducing disparities in healthcare access and health outcomes

Click here for more information on the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Research Programs or visit http://sbir.nih.gov.

Click here to view the January 2014 NIH Health Disparities Seminar Series featuring NIMHD SBIR/STTR grantees Dr. Charles Lee, president and founder of Polyglot Systems, Inc., and Bill Z. Tan, founder and CEO of Transcendent Endeavors.