Language skills – introducing the Occupational English Test to OH nursing


Brexit has put demand for overseas healthcare workers, including occupational health (OH) and occupational therapy (OT), firmly in the spotlight. But whatever our future relationship with Europe, the need for foreign national healthcare specialists is unlikely to go away, and an alternative language test for gauging English fluency, the Occupational English Test, is gaining in popularity. Debbie Rogers explains what it offers.

For many years, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) has been the preferred qualification to assess the appropriate level of English for overseas staff and students who live and work in the UK. It is used by universities and organisations such as the NHS to ensure effective and fluent communication takes place in English-speaking environments.

However, whilst IELTS is useful for testing general and academic English, it doesn’t address English language competence in specific work environments, such as medicine, where context is vital.

About the author

Debbie Rogers is chief executive of English language learning provider The English Teacher and a lecturer in English language teaching (ELT) for non-native speakers

That is why from April last year, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and the General Medical Council (GMC), among other organisations, accepted the Occupational English Test (OET) as an alternative proof of fluency, on a par with IELTS for professional registration and visa purposes.

There has been speculation in some quarters that OET is more challenging than IELTS, and in others that this new qualification is far easier.

In fact, OET is no more or less difficult than IELTS. But its advantage is that it is contextualised to specific professions. So, for example, an exam that tests English skills in a familiar medical setting is (according to my students at any rate) much more appropriate and useful for both the health practitioner and the patient.

Testing in context

OET covers 12 medical professions, from doctors and nurses to pharmacists, physiotherapists and radiographers. Like the IELTS, it examines all four essential skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening. However, all of these skills are tested in the context of medical/healthcare work.

Therefore, for nurses, the writing part of the exam would consist of, say, writing a discharge letter to a GP. This would test the candidate’s ability to use appropriate language, comprehend the stimulus (in this case patient notes), use accurate grammar and vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, etc.

The speaking part of the OET uses typical workplace interactions with patients, assessing the healthcare professional’s ability to speak clearly and fluently with appropriate language and grammar. It also tests how well the candidate can build a relationship with the patient, give and gather appropriate information, and how their use of language enables them to understand the patient’s perspective.

Listening skills are tested by answering questions on patient/doctor consultations, medical lectures, patient handovers and so on. The aim is to ensure the candidate can understand, interpret and record detailed information, as well as comprehend views, attitudes and overall gist.

Reading usually uses work-based texts such as patient notes, policy documents, workplace updates/memos, medical journals, medical studies and industry magazines. Health professionals are expected to be able to understand comprehensive texts, infer meaning, read for gist and purpose, and extract main points and details.

Cherry-picking ‘the best’

The UK is commonly thought of as having one of the most highly regarded health care systems around the world, and it has always been high on the list of “go-to” employers for overseas staff. Whilst the onset of Brexit has slightly dampened enthusiasm for working in the UK, thankfully medical and healthcare professionals continue to work throughout the British Isles, and recruitment is still relatively easy.

As a career-based English language test, the OET marks a sea-change in the workplace. Foreign national healthcare specialists are very much in demand, and that demand is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Now that the NMC and other professional bodies accept OET certification, OH professionals who have struggled to pass IELTS are likely to feel more confident when they take the OET. For OH recruiters, this will also dramatically widen the pool of talent available and give them access to more candidates who can communicate well in the workplace.

Preparing for and taking OET

Healthcare professionals can take the test in 16 venues across the UK, from Scotland to Devon, and tests are usually held once a month.

At present, however, few colleges and training providers offer OET preparation classes. It is usual for employers to spend some of their education and induction budget on providing an in-house course, either over a few months or intensively over a few weeks.

The Occupational English Test provides a list of test venues and dates, as well as external course providers who have either completed, or are currently undergoing the official OET teaching programme.

As well as in-house training, many providers also work online and/or on a small group/one-to-one basis, providing a blended learning programme. You can also find a list of preparation providers here.

Of course, these providers aren’t the only sources of OET preparation. But they have been “rubber stamped” by the official examining body as providing comprehensive preparation courses.

Although the OET is more expensive than IELTS (around £330 per candidate as opposed to approximately £200), employers should take into account the likelihood that candidates may pass OET more quickly than repeated attempts at IELTS because of its specific professional context.

The future of OET in OH

Occupational health, as with the other medical professions, is likely to employ more overseas nurses, OTs and physiotherapists in the next few years.

Take-up of the OET is growing rapidly as employers recognise value of OET in ensuring patient safety and quality of care, as well as effective communication and fluency.

Therefore, if as an employer, recruiter or an OH professional running your own consultancy and you are considering employing overseas OH staff, it may be worth looking seriously at OET as an alternative to IELTS for registration/visa purposes for your overseas employees.


The Occupational English Test list of test venues

Preparation providers

One Response to Language skills – introducing the Occupational English Test to OH nursing

  1. Avatar
    Punam 15 May 2019 at 7:11 pm #

    If NMC is accepting 6.5 IELTS writing in nursing then why C+ in OET writing is not acceptable for them? It’s a big question regarding OET standard. They should think about it and must make it an equal standard.

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