Speaking the patient's language

Andrew Westoll

While Ortsbo has the potential to revolutionize fields such as business, education and geopolitics, it could also have a huge impact on information transfers in a very important area, healthcare—the conversation between patient and doctor.

In diagnosing mental disorders, clinicians typically conduct interviews and use standardized tests to understand the breadth and severity, along with the veracity, of a patient’s symptoms. These psychological tests are almost always available in English only—translations are rarely available—and they are almost always standardized using only samples of English-speaking people.

This is worrisome, says Konstantine Zakzanis, a clinical psychologist and a psychology professor at UTSC. “Words used to depict psychological symptoms can have different meanings in different languages,” he explains. “One of the big challenges we face is that we don’t know how valid test scores are for individuals who don’t speak English.” This is even more of an issue in Canada, where multicultural populations are booming.

To demonstrate the problem, Zakzanis and his research team recently tested a group of bilingual people, using the popular Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI), a test measure of personality and mental illness. The subjects took the test in one language and then two weeks later took it in another. The results were striking. “Some people demonstrated polar-opposite personalities and clinical disorders when the results of their test versions were compared,” says Zakzanis. “In fact, one subject appeared to have schizophrenia by way of responses in one language, yet was deemed perfectly healthy on the other.”

This means people who aren’t proficient in English could theoretically be attributed the wrong diagnosis and thus the wrong treatment. Notes Zakzanis, “Clearly, the practice of clinical psychology is not in the business of providing wrongful treatment whereby we could be doing more harm than good.”

Which brings us to Ortsbo. If mental health clinicians had access to a real-time translation tool based on Ortsbo’s technology, the language barriers between patients and doctors would cease to exist. “[This] would be occasion for one of the most important advances in the field of clinical psychology in the last 40 years,” says Zakzanis. “To my mind as an active clinician, Ortsbo could become the catalyst for a new era in psychodiagnostics.”

Zakzanis is turning his enthusiasm into action in his lab at UTSC. He plans to use Ortsbo to compile language-specific data for personality and mental illness tests for patients whose first language is not English. Currently, this type of information is virtually non-existent. Ortsbo will help him generate the data rapidly and reliably. So will Aliya, David Lucatch’s daughter, who just graduated from high school and who plans to join Zakzanis’s lab as a research assistant.