Sunday, February 24, 2013

Doctors Speaking English

Here's something that I believe very strongly.

It's that when you're ill, whether in hospital or at home, you should not, when talking to a doctor, have to struggle to make yourself understood.

Furthermore, you shouldn't be struggling to understand the doctor.

So I welcome this new ruling that, from April, doctors from the European Union will have to prove their skills in English before being put on a list to practice in this country.  There'll also be cross-matching so that if you're turned down for poor language skills in one part of the country you can't pop up in another part of the country and work there.

At the moment you have to prove your language skills if you're from outside the EU, but not if you're from within it.

Does that seem ridiculous to you?  Yes, it does to me too.  If I were a doctor, and I wanted to practise in, say, France, I'd expect them to check that my French was somewhere above the "two glasses of wine, please" level.

Of course, even though many of us have been saying this for years, it took a patient's death to get something done about it.  A German doctor gave a patient a fatal overdose in his first and last shift in the UK.  He'd previously been turned down by Leeds (three cheers for Leeds!) for poor language skills and then taken on by Cambridge.

The trouble is, language is always a sensitive issue - - people can say they're complaining about language skills when they are actually being racist.  "That doctor's English isn't good" can mean "That doctor's foreign and his skin is brown and I don't like that."

I have found, both from experience in real life and in medical roleplay, that a good doctor is good no matter where they are from.  We all tend to have a more ready trust in someone who looks as though they come from the same cultural background as we do - - but take it from me, a good doctor can overcome any distrust in the first minute.

So the fact that some people use language as an excuse for racism shouldn't get in the way of the fundamental issue - - which is that of language.

So they are going to bring in language checks on doctors from the EU; a good thing too.  My only concern is who's going to set the level of language, and how is it to be checked?

One of the things that overseas doctors tend to struggle with is the appropriate level of language, and they sometimes tend to use medical jargon ("hypertension" rather than "high blood pressure") because, as a Malaysian student said to me a few years ago, "It's all English to us."

Who, therefore, will check the language skills?  Doctors?  Patients?  It would be great to provide follow-up assistance too, to help the doctors' English get even better.

It's a crucial area, I think.  I hope that they'll put enough effort and resources into thinking it out.  Many thanks to Silverback for sending me the link to the BBC news item.


Anonymous Jay at The Depp Effect said...

Oh, I could NOT agree with you more! I'm still mildly depressed about an encounter I had with an ENT consultant some years ago. He was from ... who knows? Somewhere to the far east of Europe was my guess, but he could have been Greek, Albanian or Latvian for I know, because nobody will tell you and it's not PC to ask. The important thing though, is that he lacked both bedside manner and a penetrable accent. He was speaking English, I'm fairly sure, but I could only understand about every third word, so I was guessing what he said, and when I'd asked him to repeat himself for the third or fourth time, he began to get very impatient with me indeed. The result was that I left without a very clear idea of what was wrong, and what the nasal spray he gave me was supposed to do.

The worst thing - and the thing that makes me depressed - is that in my own native country, I was too afraid to ask for someone else or to complain that I couldn't understand the doctor I was allocated for fear of being accused of racism. And I could NOT understand him.

So I do applaud this new initiative. Doctors MUST be able to communicate well. Both with their patients and with their colleagues - and of course, they must be able to understand medical information they have to read in the course of their duties. I strongly suspect I wouldn't be allowed to go and practice medicine in Italy, France, Greece, Albania or Russia (supposing I were qualified) if I didn't have a sufficient grasp of the language, so why on earth should we put up with it here?

4:37 pm  
Blogger Jennytc said...

Totally agree, Daphne and Jay, but the important thing is certainly how it will be implemented.

8:02 pm  
Blogger Jan Blawat said...

I have two major complaints about people in the medical profession (here, it's nurses as well as doctors) who don't speak English well enough to communicate with their patients. First is the issue of communication. When I was in the hospital for 7 days, I had to deal with foreign nurses and doctors from at least 8 countries. I would just get accustomed to one nurse's accent and the next shift would bring a nurse with an entirely different accent. There were many older patients with hearing problems who didn't stand a chance of understanding what they were told. The nurses were all wonderful, the experience was the same as being in a hospital in a foreign country, though.

During the same hospital stay I had the displeasure of meeting a male doctor from Pakistan. There wasn't just a language problem, the cultural differences were huge. I asked why I had to take a medication I'd been prescribed and he answered very haughtily, "I am the doctor, you must do what I say." Snarl.

The second problem I have with foreign people taking medical jobs is that I know so many young people who were born here who would love to have those jobs. It doesn't matter how hard they work or what grades they have, they cannot get into nursing or medical school because there aren't enough openings. So there is a serious shortage of "home grown" medical professionals and those young people are having to take lesser jobs. It makes no sense.

5:41 pm  
Blogger Yorkshire Pudding said...

I think that patients should also speak English and if they need translators they should bring their own along instead of expecting the NHS - that they probably haven't contributed a penny to - to provide an expensive translation service. Sometimes the buggers don't even turn up but the translator still gets his/her fee. It's outrageous.

9:02 am  

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