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The role of the on-site interpreter in psychiatric assessments


Psychiatric interviews and assessments with patients who speak another language require thorough planning to ensure correct diagnosis and treatment. In these conversations, it is important that interpreters understand not only the words, but also the feelings and needs of the patients and medical staff. They must show empathy and be able to convey these aspects sensitively without losing their neutrality.

Read on to find out why it is important that these discussions in Swiss psychiatric institutions and assessment centres take place on site with an intercultural interpreter and why the use of AI-based solutions is associated with high risks.

Requirements for community interpreters in psychiatric assessment interviews – hard skills

As in other interpreting situations in the field of trialogue or intercultural communication, interpreters in Swiss healthcare facilities must have various skills:

  1. Language skills: You must be proficient in both the target language (usually German or French) and the patient’s native language. This requires an extensive vocabulary, including specialised psychiatric terminology. This mastery or language is crucial in order to accurately convey nuances, cultural differences and technical terms and to ensure precise communication.
  2. Professional experience: Having many years of experience is particularly important in complex medical situations. Interpreters with over 10 years of practice have experienced a variety of scenarios and can flexibly react to challenges.
  3. Psychiatric expertise: A basic understanding of mental health and mental disorders is required in order to be able to adequately convey the content of a conversation. This includes knowledge of various psychiatric disorders, treatment methods and diagnostic procedures.
  4. Cultural understanding: As mental health and illness are strongly influenced by cultural factors, it is important that the interpreter is familiar with the patient’s culture. This helps to clarify cultural misunderstandings about complex issues such as mental disorders and ensure that messages are conveyed correctly.
  5. Neutrality and professionalism: Interpreters must remain neutral and professional, even when confronted with potentially incriminating or emotionally charged content. It is important that they do not interfere in the interaction or introduce their own opinions or interpretations.

Other equally important skills – soft skills

Although online, audio or telephone communication can be convenient in some cases, when it comes to psychiatric assessments of foreign-language patients, it is often better to conduct the interviews on-site with an intercultural interpreter to ensure comprehensive and appropriate care. Here are some key reasons:

  1. Non-verbal communication and communication skills: A large part of communication is non-verbal, including body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. These subtleties can be lost in audio-only or telephone conferences. By being present in person, the psychiatrist can better interpret and understand the patient’s non-verbal cues. Interpreters must be able to communicate effectively between patients and mental health professionals, convey clear and concise messages, and interpret and transmit non-verbal cues.
  2. Sensitivity to psychological and emotional aspects: In psychiatric consultations, it is important that interpreters understand not only the words, but also the emotions and needs of patients and medical staff. They must have the sensitivity and empathy to convey these aspects appropriately without losing their neutrality.
  3. Flexibility and adaptability: As psychiatric assessment interviews can often take unpredictable turns, interpreters need to be flexible and adaptable. They must be able to react quickly to changes and adapt their interpreting strategies accordingly.
  4. Protection of privacy: Psychiatric consultations often involve very personal and sensitive topics. Conducting conversations on site offers a safer environment in which the patient’s privacy can be better protected, especially when it comes to topics such as abuse or trauma.
  5. Relationship building: Face-to-face interaction allows the psychiatrist to build rapport and trust with the patient. This is crucial for the effectiveness of the treatment and the patient’s openness when discussing their problems.
  6. Accuracy of diagnosis: An accurate diagnosis requires the psychiatrist to properly understand the fine details of the patient’s symptoms. The presence of an on-site interpreter makes it easier for the psychiatrist to understand the specific nuances of the symptoms and their impact on the patient’s life, which can lead to a more accurate diagnosis.

Last but not least, there are important reasons related to confidentiality and ethics that make the provision of on-site services essential:

  • Interpreters must maintain the confidentiality of conversations and adhere to ethical standards, which means that they must not disclose information and must be aware of how to handle sensitive information. Medical interpreters must adhere to strict ethical standards and ensure the confidentiality of sensitive medical information. They should have a thorough understanding of the responsibilities and legal framework in the medical environment.
  • For data protection reasons, the risk of interpreting in an inadequately closed room or listening in on the content of a conversation must not be taken.

To summarise, the presence of a qualified human interpreter during psychiatric assessment interviews is essential to maintain confidentiality and to ensure precise and unambiguous communication between the psychiatrist and the patient. This is the only way to fulfil the above requirements.

Are you looking for intercultural interpreters with experience in psychiatry? Do not hesitate to contact us. We will find a suitable solution for you in the relevant languages and look forward to receiving your enquiry.