English for Healthcare Conference – Some Reflections
The EALTHY English for Healthcare conference, set in the stunning location of Bern, was very much of the boutique variety. Around 70 delegates attended. Most were university-level Medical English teachers, designing and delivering courses to students from a broad range of subject-specialisms, including nurses, doctors, radiographers, paramedics, and physiotherapists.
The speakers were a strong mix of established names – including Ros Wright, Kieran Donaghy, and Virginia Allum (disclaimer: Virginia is SLC’s Head of Medical English and wrote SLC’s online English courses for Doctors, Nurses and HCAs) – as well as lesser known lights delivering talks on designing courses for the Polish nursing students, using music in lessons, or developing materials using case studies.
For me the standout talks I attended were the 2 plenaries. The first was given by Dr Joe Wang, consultant at St Georges Hospital in Tooting, south London. As a hands on practitioner, Joe gave us excellent insights into the challenges facing the NHS on doctor recruitment, the rise in locums, the increasing numbers leaving the profession, and consequent greater reliance on overseas-trained professionals. These, when put together, create multiple issues around communication skills, especially when one considers the cultural challenges of a multi-cultural team of doctors working with the vast range of cultures and languages represented by today’s patients. Joe highlighted that the increase in IELTS score to 7.5 for all doctors didn’t necessarily mean they could communicate appropriately and empathetically in practice, something we at SLC have come across many times in our work on Medical English. Joe has recently been involved with the creation of a specialist English for Doctors intensive course at the London School of English, along with author and conference co-organiser, Ros Wright.
The second plenary was given by Kieran Donaghy, author of Films in Health Sciences Education. His website, http://film-english.com won a British Council ELTON award in 2013 for innovation in teaching. Kieran showed a crowded room how to use film clips to deliver engaging Medical English lessons that had real practical impact. He used a selection of clips to show empathy – or the lack of – as well as lessons in using intonation, reflective listening and paraphrasing to build relationships with patients in distress. The clips themselves came from some well-known films such as The Doctor, starring William Hurt, and Wit, starring Emma Thompson, as well as a couple of leftfield selections, such as a Thai advert for telecommunications which told a surprisingly powerful story of a young boy repaying a debt to a kind street food vendor, or a clip from Virginia Allum’s Go-animate series looking at an HCA dealing effectively with an aggressive patient. All the clips had many kinds of potential classroom uses. At the end, Keiron talked about getting students to make their own videos, which involves vast amounts of language, both transactional (negotiating, debating, deciding, etc) as well as the Medical English illustrated in the actual films.
I gave a presentation on designing blended English language courses, looking at how we can combine the strongest elements of face-to-face learning on the one hand and online self-study courses on the other to create powerful blended learning experiences. Having released 3 online Medical English course this year, this subject is of great personal interest, and it was encouraging to see the positive and engaged response of the delegates to the talk.
In addition to the various talks, there was plenty of time to drink coffee, eat croissants, and catch up with everyone at the conference. One of the real advantages of a small boutique-style conference is that you get to speak to most people and you already have plenty in common to talk about. Bern, as mentioned above, is stunning, and it was a real joy spending a couple of hours both before and after the conference taking in the Old Town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983.
So, a big thanks to the 2 organisers, Catherine Richards and Ros Wright, as well as their team who effortlessly fed, watered, guided and informed us throughout the 2 days. And of course a big thanks to all those people who spent time with me, sharing their experiences and ideas and making the conference memorable in many ways. I hope to stay in touch with many of them and look forward to meeting again at the next conference.