How To Successfully Teach Medical English In China

What with an electric hot water bottle exploding all over my thigh in February 2014 (you can read up on my experience here and here), I've had a rather unique opportunity to experience Chinese hospitals from the inside. Since my treatment was tedious and lengthy, and even included surgery and a hospital stay, I had the chance to make quite a few new friends. I also stayed in hospital again in November 2015 for a voluntary, cosmetic surgery on both my upper arms.

Since I can speak Chinese, communicating with the doctors and nurses in the hospital wasn't as difficult as it would have been for let's say someone without any Chinese skills. Throughout my treatment I was very lucky to be under the care of a surgeon, who studied and lived abroad for many years, and therefore speaks fluent English. However other doctors and nurses, who cared for me, lacked that ability. Here my Chinese skills came in handy, enabling me to still communicate more or less effectively. Whenever my Chinese failed we resolved to body language and/or drawings...

After a few dinners the topic of teaching English inevitably came up (and has come up a good few times since then) over the last two years and while those doctors and nurses, I've come to call friends, have no trouble understanding complicated articles in medical journals, what they all agreed on was that they struggle with everyday communication and have no or little faith in their oral English. Most of them said they don't even dare to speak English for fear of not knowing how to communicate with their patient or simply not being able to express themselves in simple terms.

I am by nature a very curious person, so following those discussions I went on a research mission to educate myself on how to teach Medical English effectively. While there is a lot of material available online, including great books published by Cambridge University, what I just couldn't find were helpful tips and or suggestions on how to teach Medical English. I downloaded a ton of material and even read a few articles, published online, but they mostly just focused on the importance of doctors and nurses being able to speak English. Despite having downloaded a folder full of fantastic material (and also preparing my own material), every time I pictured myself standing in front of a bunch of doctors and nurses, attempting to teach them Medical English, I just saw myself breaking out in hives.

So how on earth do you teach people who willingly spent about five years in university with their noses buried in a mountain of books, then spent another five years putting all that theoretical knowledge into practice, before finally being allowed to call themselves doctors. The thought of teaching someone who is able to mix together a delightful cocktail of very potent drugs that will put you into a coma and cutting into you with a very sharp knife is just a little intimidating...

After asking my new-found friends for their opinions, I discovered that their needs are actually quite simple. Most of them struggle to remember how to explain a diagnosis (or the requirement of a test) in layman's terms. When put on the spot, they could accurately recall a bunch of complicated medical terms, then felt frustrated when I just stared at them blankly. Others said they were worried about their pronunciation, worried that a patient might not understand them. Sadly one of my friends even asked why I would want to go and see a Chinese doctor when Western doctors are so much better. That just made me sad. I understand where that way of thinking is coming from, and while I would love to go into that, it's a topic for another post.

You definitely don't need to be a doctor to successfully teach Medical English to those in the medical profession whose first language isn't English. All it takes is a little understanding and common sense. Doctors and nurses have not need for complicated terminology or repeated reading practice, those are things they can learn and practice in their own time. What they really need is to first of all be given the chance to understand the differences in culture. Most of them have no clue about the how and when people in the West visit a doctor... What on earth is a GP? Why do people not go to the hospital to see the doctor? Why do doctors in the West have their own private surgery? I want to see a cardiologist, why do I have to go to my GP first? Why do hospitals have no pharmacy for patients to pick up their prescriptions? Giving them the chance to listen to your personal experiences from back home and ask questions gives them a better insight into a patient's expectations. Let them share their own experiences and ask them to compare. This simple discussion is actually a great way to boost their confidence as they are using English to talk to you and either classmates. If their English isn't good enough to have this discussion and you speak their mother tongue, then use it! Don't make the lesson harder on them than it already is.

If your students are in the medical profession, you will quickly discover that they are very used to studying and will take the class very seriously, sometimes even too seriously. E.g. You might end up listening to the doctors among your students debating about a diagnosis (and the nurses might debate about the correct way to care for a patient), determined to show off their medical skills and diagnose your imaginary patient accurately. If that happens gently remind them that a correct diagnosis isn't the top priority, however if they are debating in English, do give them a couple of minutes to get carried away. They are after all using English!

When improving their English skills, doctors and nurses often have to get medical histories from their patients, so practice this often. Pretend to be a patient, state your symptoms and ask them to get a through medical history out of you. Put them into pairs with one student playing the patient and the other playing the doctor. Ask them to take notes when taking a medical history. Pre-teach the most common questions, but be sure to keep them simple. Why teach them a complicated, long question, when a short one works just as well? Instead of asking for two or more things in one question separate them, there is nothing wrong with asking three questions instead of one. It might be a little more tedious but the result is the same, and actually better. I recommend showing the students the more complicated question and the simple one side by side, they might want to remember both, but make sure to stress the importance of focusing on the simple questions for effectiveness.

Do practice new vocabulary with them, but remember that learning random words is of no use to your students, they need to learn those words in context and where and how to use them. If the vocabulary isn't useful to them, don't teach it. Make a point to tell students what abbreviations such as ECG (electro cardiogram), CT (computer tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) stand for but do stress that even native speakers mightn't be familiar with anything but the abbreviations.

Get students to explain simple procedures and tests to you, and remind them to keep it simple. This is why I believe a doctor or nurse isn't necessarily the most qualified person to teach non-native English speakers Medical English. A doctor or a nurse might easily overlook the need for simple, basic explanations every patient will understand, and as such ignore to stress the importance of this.

Use pictures, flashcards, videos and PPTs to make the class visual and colourful. Doctors and nurses are well used to leafing through tons of heavy books, writing page after page of medical history. Give them the chance to escape into a more colourful word. Show them video clips of some popular Western medical dramas, mute the sound and ask the students to explain in simple terms what's happening in the clip. Play memory games where the students have to match words and pictures and possibly even put them into context (e.g. tell you a short story). Doctors and nurses work in a highly stressful environment and will appreciate the light-heartedness and the chance to relax but still learn. Even doctors and nurses enjoy letting out their inner child every now and then!

Don't be afraid to correct their grammar and pronunciation. Doctors and nurses won't think you are questioning their ability to treat a patient but appreciate the opportunity to improve. Do let them use their dictionaries to check unknown words, but be careful when they are using a dictionary to translate words from their native language into English. Depending on the quality of the dictionary the result can be either spot on or so far away from the truth that you'll have to correct them, so do your research. Prepare a list of some common words in their native language and the corresponding, correct English translation to avoid problems like that. Tedious but well worth it!

Don't use the entire class time to tell stories or moan about the medical system in your own country, but do let your students complain and discuss problems with medical care in their country, providing they are doing it in English!

Repeat, repeat, repeat! Don't bombard the students with class after class and lesson after lesson of new material, but instead teach two or three classes filled with new material, then go back to something you have done a while back and check just how much the students actually remember. Your students will be grateful for the opportunity to remember things they learned and show off their new skills.

All in all, teaching Medical English isn't all that different from teaching English as a second language, with the exception that you need to do your homework for every class. You don't have to be able to recite the content of a medical dictionary but you should know the names of a couple of common drugs and be familiar with how they are taken and their side effects. You should also be familiar with a bunch of common diseases and how they are treated and every ones in a while you can even research a somewhat rare disease, remember the symptoms, then ask your students to diagnose you, in English. Keep it light-hearted and let them win if they get close but can't actually name the disease in English.

A Few Resources:

ESLFlow: Human Body Lessons

Hospital English

At The Hospital

Busy Teacher: Medicine & Health

English Med

English for Nurses & Medical Professionals

Medical English for Doctors & Patients