Lost in translation

It is widely acknowledged that it's only a matter of time before all dentists, not just those from outside the EU, will have to demonstrate that they are proficient in English if they wish to practise in the UK. 

A dentist needs to be able to communicate on social, palliative and clinical levels using appropriate language for all three. Dentistry differs from other health professions in that much of what a dentist does is procedural. It’s not just consultation: it’s another aspect that needs to be explained to each and every patient – what’s being done, why it’s being done and what is the experience likely to be? Treatment plans and alternatives need to be clearly explained and understood. Records have to be maintained accurately and be capable of being fully understood by another dentist if it’s in a group practice. Letters of referral must be comprehensive and in no way ambiguous. 

Fitting the criteria

In order to work in many English-speaking countries, dental professionals whose first language is not English and haven’t trained on a course taught in English often need to demonstrate a level of competency by way of an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam or similar. However, the required IELTS score varies from governing body to governing body and country to country. Overseas qualified dentists from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) whose qualifications are not eligible for full registration with the General Dental Council (GDC) in the UK are required to pass the Overseas Registration Examination (ORE). Successful completion of the ORE allows these dentists to register with the GDC and practise unsupervised in the UK. Prior to taking the two-part examination to demonstrate their clinical skills and knowledge, applicants must first submit details of their clinical experience and a single, academic IELTS test report form that is less than two years old and shows a minimum overall band score of 7.0; and show no score lower than 6.5 in any section. 

However, overseas qualified dentists from within the EEA are currently exempt from submitting an IELTS test report form as part of the ORE, although this might change within the next few years.  

The UK Government is currently consulting on changes to the 1983 Medical Act that would introduce legislation to ‘seek to stop foreign healthcare professionals working in the NHS unless they have passed robust language and competence tests.’ The proposed amendment is more comprehensive and includes both EU nationals and non-EU nationals. While the proposed amendments don’t currently affect dentistry, it is highly likely that the GDC would follow suit and tighten-up its English language competency requirements further still. 

Setting the bar

The GDC should be applauded for setting the bar on language assessment with UK dentistry and going above and beyond what is currently required by the 1983 Medical Act. The very fact that candidates must demonstrate their language proficiency before sitting an examination demonstrates the importance of good communication. Any change in legislation or desire to improve language practise would be an opportunity to make language proficiency requirements at entry more industry specific. 

By introducing enhanced language testing requirements, it’s vitally important to ensure that examinations are not only fit-for-purpose but easily deployed, fair and secure. Cambridge English Language Assessment’s experience in running global, high-stakes secure examinations, such as IELTS and OET is second to none – meeting very high standards in terms of authentication, security, reliability and validity. Cambridge English Language Assessment’s expertise and reputation can help provide regulators with a high level of confidence.

One issue that we are very aware of in the UK is increasing pressure on limited resources leading to restructuring within the NHS. With global issues of an ageing population, people living longer and a greater need for healthcare, there is going to be more scrutiny on regulators to recruit internationally to meet the resourcing needs. Testing language competency and communication skills is fundamental to this changing landscape in healthcare and examinations such as OET are becoming increasingly important in playing its part – not just in terms of regulation but in terms of ensuring patient safety and patient outcomes.

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