Nursing vacancy figures are at their highest level since records began, with a recent Guardian survey revealing that 80 percent of nurses, doctors and managers are concerned about there not being enough staff on duty to give patients safe and high-quality care. The NHS is in need of qualified staff, therefore, as a result of this shortage, has become reliant on healthcare professionals from outside of the UK. The big problem is that many of the healthcare workers the NHS attempts to recruit speak little or no English. In fact, a scheme to bring 200 nurses from the Philippines to work in a hospital in Kent in 2017 was considerably stalled after 90 percent of them failed an English language test.
It is easy to see why a competent knowledge of the English language is of paramount importance within the NHS. Language barriers between staff and patients are likely to have a negative impact on health outcomes; in particular it can increase the risk of medical errors and complications, lead to malpractice issues and result in an overall decreased patient satisfaction. Furthermore, a member of staff without the language skills to engage in proficient conversation creates added pressure on the hospital as a whole, resulting in reduced staff collaboration. Indeed, for physicians and other staff, language has been described as ‘medicine’s most essential technology’; it is both the first and last step in every process of healthcare.
The NHS also follows a set of principles that guide everything it does. Principle three, outlining their commitment to the highest standards of excellence and professionalism, promises the provision of high-quality care that is safe, effective and focused on the patient experience. This is key in the people that it employs, and in the support, education, training and development they receive. Therefore, it is essential that staff possess a quality of language to deliver upon this principle of excellence and professionalism.
Addressing the language skills gap
Basic English, as many overseas healthcare professionals learn, is no longer sufficient: language and communication skills required for good medical care and working relationships rely on more than just an understanding of medical terminology. Without more colloquial English, healthcare institutes risk a cultural disconnect between staff and patients. This could be problematic because a large part of effective healthcare relies on building good relationships between providers and their patients. Furthermore, as the UK has an aging population with 18 percent of our total populace aged 65 and over, our country’s reliance on the NHS is only going to increase and place further dependence on staff from overseas. Healthcare interactions that we may view as commonplace could seem abnormal or unnecessary to new foreign employees and they may need additional support to help care for English patients, especially those who are older.
One way to resolve the language crisis that the NHS is facing is the continued teaching of English as foreign staff take up positions within our healthcare system. An effective teaching program would have three aims: to develop greater patient and doctor trust, to reduce hiring and training costs, and to enable regulatory compliance.
The rise of digital learning solutions
A problem with traditionally standardised language teaching software is that they are antiquated; they cannot be effectively or easily undertaken by nurses who often have irregular and busy work schedules. The NHS should therefore be taking advantage of online language programs that deliver personalised, accessible and flexible learning, as well as training, tutoring and evaluation tools.
Digital training solutions can suit organisations with geographically dispersed workforces; those that are trying to achieve a consistent skills level across teams working in different time zones and with a varied starting level of ability. Offering a range of content types including video, quizzes and the ability to interact in real-time with tutors and other learners, today’s digital learning platforms can keep healthcare employees motivated and engaged. Furthermore, as it’s suitable for use on mobile devices as well as PCs and laptops, the training can fit into the schedule of the mobile workforce and be tapped into when convenient. It’s a more flexible learning regime than one built solely around lecture-style learning.
With an adequate language learning program, not only would medical terminology and procedure be covered, but typical provider-patient interactions that could increase rapport and improve ‘bedside manner’. Indeed, healthcare professionals could have access to the skills most needed for them to address the growing needs in the hospital environment. Having access to a patient-centred communication strategy and gaining insight into cultural contexts enables a greater linguistic capability and stronger relationships, between staff and patients alike, to be formed. Ultimately, effective continual language development can showcase the ability of language to truly affect lives for the better, improve professional practice and benefit entire communities and institutions.
Sabine Schnorr, senior director, Europe, Rosetta Stone.