English for Medical Purposes is a branch of ESP or English for Specific Purposes. ESP has developed into an umbrella group of courses for specific areas of learning or for specific professions. As it was recognised that even high levels of competency in General Academic language do not prepare workers in specific professions, ESP was born.
EMP (English for Medical Purposes) covers the English language which Health Care Professionals need to be able to practise safely and confidently. The issue of safe practice linked to language competency in EMP is common to other ESP courses such as Aviation English or English for the Oil and Gas Industry. This is obvious as even minor language misunderstandings in these areas of work can have serious consequences. For example, misunderstanding a dose of 14 units of insulin as 40 units of insulin could be a serious drug error.
The healthcare environment is often a difficult place to work in as the work is often fast-paced and patients are not always easy to understand. They may speak indistinctly because of a health problem e.g. be stroke-affected or speak with a heavy accent or use an unfamiliar dialect of English. The elderly may also be difficult to understand or find it difficult to understand the Healthcare Professional because of hearing loss or dementia. Patients may not understand medical terms and may only understand everyday health terms which may be unfamiliar to the Health Care Worker. For example, an Australian patient who tells the doctor that he’s been ‘chucking all night’ means that he’s been vomiting all night!
English for Medical Purposes can be further divided into other categories. Firstly, English for doctors, English for nurses, English for healthcare assistants, English for midwives and so on. Each medical area has its own unique vocabulary which sometimes leads to the discussion of whether EMP courses need to be heavily content-based –relevant vocabulary and technology- and/or taught by dual professionals. There are those who feel that only current or former Healthcare Professionals have the ability to teach EMP. Others feel that EMP is still based around basic communication skills and reading and writing skills which just need to be put in context.
I write EMP materials and develop resources in EMP but still work as a Registered Nurse. I find my background in nursing gives me a great insight into current nursing terminology and allows me to see first-hand what difficulties overseas nurses face in the workplace. Having said that, it is not reasonable to expect every EMP teacher to have a medical background nor should it be necessary as long as valid teaching materials are chosen and an effort is made to spend time getting a basic understanding of the subject. Bringing real Healthcare Professionals into the class-room can also help to give an authentic perspective on the workplace environment.
The second category is that of the purpose of EMP. There are many areas where EMP is used but perhaps a simple breakdown is to say:
1. EMP for workplace readiness. This may be part of compulsory testing before registration in a healthcare profession is allowed. For example, proving language competency before registration with a nursing licensing board such as the NMC (Nurses and Midwives Council) in the UK.
2. EMP for use in a healthcare environment where English is not the official language. This is commonly where English is the common language between Health Care Professional and patient if the patient has found himself /herself in hospital in a foreign country. More and more countries are trying to prepare for this problem ahead of time e.g the case of Brazil where Brazilian doctors in Belo Horizonte have started an English for Doctors course to prepare for the possible onslaught of foreign visitors who fall ill during the forthcoming World Cup and Olympics in a few years time.
3. EMP for academic purposes. Healthcare Professionals who want to be part of global discussions during conferences usually need to be able to communicate ideas in English. As nursing progresses to a common global standard of a minimum of degree level, there is a greater need to bring practices and nursing research into the international arena. This usually has to be done in English.
Who uses Medical English?
Any Healthcare Professionals e.g. doctors, nurses, certified nursing assistants, home carers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, radiologists, pharmacists, psychologists, optometrists, audiologists : each specialty uses specific terms and vocabulary as well as everyday health terms. Some examples:
Healthcare Professionals in hospitals, Mental Health Units, clinics and GP Practices.
Healthcare Professionals in Nursing Homes and Hostels e.g nursing assistants or carers.
Healthcare Professionals in pharmaceutical companies who need to explain the use of drugs and dressings on a disease or disorder.
Medical Equipment sales reps who need to be able to explain the use of surgical equipment or devices to be used in particular operations or procedures.
Telehealth Healthcare Professionals who advise patients over the phone about health isssues
Travel Doctors who give current information about health issues around the world e.g. TB, rabies.
Students undertaking degrees or diplomas in medical fields. Sometimes used as Pre-Arrival Learning to familiarise themselves with new terms but also used during their studies to keep up with new information.
Healthcare Professionals who participate in conferences or write academic articles. Many conference papers and academic articles are produced and presented in English.
Healthcare Professionals who undertake medical research
Medical secretaries who undertake training in medical terminology to be able to understand dictation from surgeons or physicians and also for health coding.
Authors of Health Literacy materials. Health Literacy materials aim to inform the public of health issues e.g diabetes , heart disease
Authors of Public Health materials e.g WHO documents which inform about global health issues e.g malaria