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Medical English Resources

Straight Talk About OET Preparation

Alecia Banfield

December 2018 | OET

As part of our series into trainer experience of the OET, one of EALTHY’s newest members, Alecia Banfield shares her thoughts and advice. Alecia comes from a fairly unique position. Not only is she a medical professional, she is also one of the few officially accredited OET trainers.

New playing field

The OET was developed from 30 years of research and expert insights, but is still largely from one world region – Australia and the Pacific. Now its introduction into the UK and a more global audience means more eyes on its appropriateness to global settings. Will it, for example, be equally adequate for a rural Caribbean healthcare professional and a top London city NHS Trust doctor?

Keeping it real

As a medical and public health doctor who has worked in hospital and ambulant care, and health initiative implementation, I am familiar with the demands of communication on the job. Learning a couple of foreign languages and being a TEFL/TESOL teacher for the last five years has offered insight into the issues of adult second-language learning in English for Specific Purposes, and OET no less.

OET 2.0 listening, reading and speaking reflect the clinical and non-clinical activities professionals really confront. Beyond strong lexis and grammar, there is also strong reflection of the communicative criteria in the International Patient Safety Goals. This is good. Scenarios are focused on patient’s needs, and inter-professional interactions echo team patient care, handovers, use of technology and continuing medical education. The need for ‘soft skills’ is explicit, such as eliciting and offering information in a sensitive but informed and professional manner, since candidates are looking to work in English-speaking environments where professional-patient relationships open lines of communication that directly impact health outcome.

No shortcut to success

The OET recognizes that candidates don’t just need good test-taking skills, but must promote best practice patient care long after the test is done. And let’s face it, no institution wants lawsuit-liability, not least because staff don’t understand which instrument to ask for, that the patient had a violent reaction to something in the past, or that the notice about needing Advanced CPR Training within the last two years means that you, who did it three years ago, need to go and do the course again!

Implications for the candidate are clear: time spent looking for short cuts to pass the test would be better spent developing real facility in English by engaging with a wide range of medical and non-medical materials and activities. And yes, candidates still need proper test-skills preparation to improve chances of success.

Step by step

For listening, immediate understanding of the audio’s context and which direction it is likely to go helps candidates pre-empt what is coming up and more quickly hone in on key information. It’s a neurological quirk of the forebrain that helps us make connections and react faster. Pertinently, it aids the candidate in honing in on answers while keeping up with an audio. For example, their expectation in an interview about a recent back injury would differ from that for a second surgery for a prolapsed disc, and they would listen for different language. Practicing pre-empting might be of greater benefit than learning specific word associations in a sample test.

In the reading, the shift in contexts and timing do not allow for a second to be wasted when answering questions, far less for figuring out what a word or phrase means. Instant familiarity and comfort with English is needed. Once that is achieved, skimming and scanning become beneficial techniques to find answers quickly.

Speaking targets how the professional relates to patients, and the semantics of things like inference. Some candidates are slow to speak, so starting with a warm-up unrelated to healthcare—a hobby or their favorite wines—seems to shake up non-healthcare nerve connections which then get the healthcare ones going, too. A fun speaking task (emphasis on ‘fun’) the night or morning before the test might help them get into ‘English gear’. Exposure to a range of healthcare situations builds awareness of differing language needed with different patients.

Some candidates are overly confident and run headlong into mistakes they don’t expect, like basic grammar and word choice. I have two words for these candidates: homework assignments. An invaluable tool I found for everyone is having them listen to recordings of themselves reading texts aloud and doing role plays. Even the most bashful student soon starts identifying errors or issues, and wanting to repeat the exercise to do better next time!

Writing remains the ‘stone age’ vestige in OET. Inarguably, it shows level of grammar, vocabulary and idiom, and tests reading and comprehension. But who writes referral letters by hand anymore? Not even me back when I was practicing. More usually, there is a standard format for dropping in information, and the onus is on the recipient to pick out what is relevant to them and/or get the highlights word-of-mouth from the patient. Modern doctors write patient notes and procedural summaries; modern nurses and therapists write care plans and complete computerized records. I look forward to the proposed changes to the writing test.

We must deal with the current incarnation, however, and I spend significant time on time-planning to help candidates avoid overwriting, underwriting or (horror!) writing the same thing twice. They either think that there isn’t enough time to finish the letter, or that they have plenty of time to rewrite if their first attempt looks shoddy. With discerning reading, highlighting and putting important points in order, padding around with relevant language, and then writing, it is possible to produce a polished product with time left to proofread.

So what about the ‘others’?

There is great ado about OET courses targeting the candidates at English B2+/C1 on the Common European Framework of Languages. But what about prospective candidates at A2, B1 or B2- the hopes-and-dreamers? Do they simply go away and come back when they somehow get their language up to scratch? Would they know that a different approach might be needed depending on their language level? Do they on their own even know how to reach B2+/C1?
Language communication is about conditioning the brain to integrate and reproduce four separate skills in real time. It is about refashioning physical neural pathways to fire in new patterns starkly different from the native language. Adult third- or fifth-language learners likely have mature techniques for foreign language learning, but second language learners might not understand this is different from absorbing facts, where to find helpful tools, or how to map their progress as they learn. This last point can itself be quite motivating for learning. At some point, the spotlight must also turn on these ‘Others’.

Alecia BanfieldAlecia Banfield has a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, a Master in Public Health, and is a certified TEFL/TESOL teacher. From Barbados, she lives in Germany, and also speaks German and Spanish. Alicia is founder of Banfield’s Professional Medical English.