Teaching English to medical professionals, such as postgraduate doctors, requires a number of modifications in approach on the part of any teacher coming into ESP. At a recent event, a participant was reporting a discussion with a volunteer tutor about what he, a retired consultant in the medical field, should call the members of the group he was teaching. He didn’t feel it was right to call his fellow professionals ‘students’. A seemingly minor episode, but it does highlight the shifts that we as professionals need to think about when teaching other professionals. It may be that our students carry on being ‘students’, but our attitude towards them, our behaviour and our way of working does need to undergo some transformation.
Working in a medical team
In the medical field, if you are lucky enough, you may find yourself working as an ESP teacher with a team of health professionals in a hospital setting. You may be part of a team made up of other language professionals, a general practitioner, a nurse, a social worker, (a) consultant(s) along with professional actors/actresses, all working together in the same training session.
You may, however, be working on your own in a language school and feel that you are isolated, but realise there is more to teaching in the medical field than just doing language practice. In this case, it may be possible to bring in retired or practising health professionals such as consultants or doctors or nurses to help with training or arrange a visit to a local hospital or clinic. The aim is to make any classroom training as close to the hospital setting as possible, which the Medicine 1 and 2 and Nursing 1 and 2 in the Oxford English For Careers series have aimed to do with their task-based approach.
Training in a hospital setting
A typical training session in communication skills for doctors might involve a multidisciplinary approach with one or more team members where the language itself may appear incidental but is integral to the tasks the doctors perform. Each doctor can be given a scenario such as a 25-year-old young woman, Miss Brown, who presents with a severe headache. How much detail the doctor is given can be modulated even to the point that all the doctor has is the name and age of the patient; or, if the patient has seen the doctor before, then some past history can be given. For safety and confidentiality reasons, the patient in the training is an experienced actress who has a defined role to play with medical information and details on personality, behaviour and attitude/ mood as well as accent. The history-taking is watched by fellow doctors and other health professionals such as those mentioned above, including the language professional. The process is then followed by constructive feedback from the doctor himself, from the actress as the patient, the actress as herself, the other students and trainers. In this instance, the language input on the part of the language professional is dictated by the performance of the doctor in the scenario.
The cost of providing the multidisciplinary training described in the previous section may make it difficult to replicate outside the hospital. However, it is possible to create scenarios where the doctors are the patients and their colleagues give feedback from different perspectives (social/ medical/ psychiatric) with the teacher maintaining the role of the language expert. If at all possible, you may be able to bring in actors/ actresses for the scenarios, which will enhance the training considerably. Your students can also be given open-ended problem-solving tasks such as dealing with the performance of a colleague. The students discuss the problem in groups of about four within a defined time. Each group member has their own observer who gives constructive feedback on their group interaction. This latter task is a good way to improve insight and self-awareness.
The same training principles apply in other areas of ESP such as business, engineering, finance and law where a problem-solving approach can be taken to bring the language to life, focusing not on language practice, but on language use.
The Oxford English for Careers series is ideal for pre-work students, who will need to use English in work situations.
Sam McCarter is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer/editor with special interests in medical English communication skills, and IELTS. He is the author of Medicine 1 from the Oxford English for Careers series.