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Press Release - 16 July 2007

Test evaluates English language skills of foreign medics

Language specialists at the University of Bath have developed a suite of tests that evaluate the English language skills of different healthcare professionals seeking work in the UK.

The tests, which were taken by around 1,000 dentists, dental nurses and pharmacists in the last year alone, are the only language assessments to evaluate ability in the specific context of UK healthcare.

They help ensure, for example, that dentists have the adequate language skills to understand patients’ preferences or allay their fears, and that pharmacists can differentiate between different kinds of pain or give appropriate health advice.

Currently there is no official requirement to take any kind of language test for many medical professionals from the European Economic Area (EEA) wishing to work in the UK.

Whilst the Department of Health recommends to NHS trusts that candidates for jobs should demonstrate a suitable level of English proficiency, only dentists have to provide proof of this by sitting an approved test.

Medical professionals from outside the EEA are required to prove language competency as part of their professional registration process. However, this tends to be based on an academic English test rather than one that is professionally-based.

“We developed the healthcare-specific test when employers approached us saying they wanted to ensure that the medics they bring into the UK have the language skills needed to communicate effectively with their patients,” said Janet Scott, one of the University of Bath English Language Test (UBELT) originators.

Mr Kevin Renfrew, a UBELT spokesperson, said: “We have a lot of expertise in testing English language skills, and continue to work closely with the healthcare professions and employers to ensure that UBELT provides a comprehensive language test relevant to their needs.”

Boots, the UK’s leading retail chemist, has sought to ensure that overseas pharmacists they have looked to recruit have proven their language proficiency by taking the UBELT test as part of the selection process.

Paul Stretton, Boots’ Head of HR – Pharmacy and Opticians, said: “At Boots we really believe it’s important for both the candidate and our customers to ensure all potential recruits have a competent level of English so we assisted the development of this test and actively support continuing validation work.

“UBELT tests all four areas: speaking, listening, reading and writing. By applying a minimum threshold we are confident that our recruits are able to effectively communicate with patients, which is absolutely critical for the pharmacist role.

“This has really helped successfully integrate our overseas pharmacists and improved retention rates amongst this group.“

UBELT test results can be delivered within hours of testing and feedback indicates an individual’s ability to communicate in English by investigating their level of fluency, flexibility and accuracy when they are asked to communicate on a wide range of topics, including professional ones.

Unlike other general language tests, test results are weighted to focus on the key language skills each profession requires. For the majority it is the oral skills which are most important, and UBELT examiners are trained to create an interactive speaking test to give a more realistic appraisal of the individual’s active language ability.

“Whilst no test can be 100 per cent accurate in terms of future performance, UBELT gives the best analysis of medical-specific language skills we can hope to achieve,” said Mr Renfrew.

The UBELT team have been asked to hold examinations throughout Europe by employers and medical recruitment companies, including some in the UK, and also run their own tests at the University for individual candidates who are already living in the UK.

Candidates from fourteen EEA countries, including Poland, Sweden, Greece and Portugal, have sat the UBELT test.

“There is clearly a need to look overseas for human resources that can help plug the gaps in UK healthcare,” said Mr. Renfrew.

“UBELT helps ensure that the medical qualifications held by these people are matched by their communications skills.”

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