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English Language Teaching Global Blog


What was the question?

Female doctor with patient in backgroundIn this article and video, Sam McCarter, author of Medicine 1 and 2, considers the importance of clinical communication skills.

When doctors or nurses are non-native speakers of English, which basic skills do they need for effective communication with their English-speaking patients?

A basic skill for medical personnel, which is often not completely mastered, is asking questions.

A skilful doctor can balance closed questions (‘Does the pain spread anywhere else?’) with open questions (‘Can you tell me a little more about the pain?’) and then cope with a large amount of information in the answer. A doctor who cannot do this risks losing the patient’s confidence.

Yet the very simplicity of the questions may lead students not to take this language seriously enough. This means such questions are often not mastered, because students focus on the more medical doctor-to-doctor communication.

The same applies to counselling a patient, using a very small bank of words to explain a vast array of medical information, while at the same time being able to talk appropriately to other health professionals.

Cue recognition and response are other essential techniques which students need to learn. A patient may hint at something indirectly through stress:

Patient: ‘I don’t take any prescribed drugs’
Doctor: ‘Do you take any other drugs? Like recreational drugs?’

The ‘cue’ may be in the sound of the voice: the patient sounds hesitant. But it may also be non-verbal.

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