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The Standem standard

Matt Salusbury describes a pan-European project to develop a suite of exams testing medical English linked to the CEFR

An ambitious pan-European project funded by the European Commission is currently in development, with the aim of developing a ‘Standardised Language Certificate for Medical Purposes’ – Standem for short – for use throughout the EU and beyond. This is a response to the everincreasing international mobility of medical professionals, and not just into countries where English is the official language.

Standem’s ultimate aim is to produce a suite of ‘detailed descriptors of linguistic competence for the medical domain’, with tests providing ‘sound information about ... English language proficiency in a professional context’. There will be medical English tests at three levels – ten sets of exams at CEFR level C1, ten sets of exams at B2 and four at B1, in all the four skills. Being a Commission-supported project, it’s closely linked to the CEFR. (There’s a glossary here.)

Iwona Misztal, Standem’s coordinator, told the Gazette that while the reading and listening elements will be ‘the same for all healthcare professionals’, the remaining papers – speaking and writing – each have at least one task ‘profiled especially to meet the requirement of each of these three main target groups ... doctors, nurses and pharmacists (professionals and students)’.

The Standem writing paper has two tasks – letter writing and ‘interpretation/description of a diagram’. While the letterwriting task is usually the same for all variants, there will be different versions of the description task for doctors, nurses and pharmacists, as there will be for the speaking paper.

The exam developers have already been trained and currently are in the process of developing the actual exam papers. If everything goes according to plan, Standem will eventually have a network of test centres (run together with partner organisations) across Europe, and ultimately outside the EU as well.

According to Misztal, ‘The problem with the existing medical English exams is mainly that they are limited in geographical scope and also, in many cases, they either do not test all four languages skills or they do not relate them to CEFR.’ A single medical English exam which provides an objective assessment at the international level is ‘badly needed in order to make sure that foreign doctors/nurses/pharmacists have the sufficient level of language competence to carry out their professional duties effectively’ and develop their careers.

Current exams, she feels, focus mostly on professional skills, with language skills ‘tested only indirectly and only partially’ as in the case of the Plab test, currently taken by doctors in the UK. Nor is it clear, feels Misztal, whether a Plab score ‘is related to the CEFR’. The current version of Ielts, on the other hand, ‘is testing the level of general/academic language competence in English ... even a very high score from the Ielts exam does not give any information about the candidate’s level of specialist language skills needed in the medical context’.

The Standem project is based at the Centre for Foreign Languages of Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, with ‘core participants’ including the University of Edinburgh, the Dijon School of Medicine in France (which has already been running its Diplôme InterUniversitaire d’Anglais pour la Médecine for over two years), Elanquest English Language School in Malta, and universities in Hungary, Austria, Romania and the Netherlands. But apart from the University of Edinburgh, the absence of any university medical school or medical English provider from the UK and Ireland in the list is noteworthy.

The project has already reached beyond the borders of the EU. Misztal notes ‘considerable interest in the Standem initiative in Asian countries’. Tokyo Medical University is also among its core project consortium members, and its ‘supporting organisations’ now include Johns Hopkins University’s medical school in the US and Beijing Uniacare Consulting.

While the core project consortium members are almost all universities, several privatesector medical English providers have become ‘associated partners’ (Beijing Uniacare falls into this category) and there’s even one associated partner in the UK. Misztal says, ‘We do intend to involve more stakeholders (including exam boards and awarding bodies) from the UK’, once there is a ‘fully validated set’ of exams to show them.

Misztal told the Gazette in late October that the Standem examination papers that have already been developed are ‘undergoing a thorough validation process’, with listening papers likely to be ready first. Standem is ‘planning to pretest all the exam papers from the first set by the end of November and they should be available on our website by the end of this year’.

What’s likely to happen to existing medical English exams once Standem takes off? Says Misztal, ‘Neither Plab nor Ielts in its current version assess the proficiency level of medical English so these exams will co-exist but not on a competitive basis as they focus on testing different skills.’ Given the demand for medical English exams, ‘it is likely that in future several competitive international exams testing medical English will be available on the market. However, the [small] number of testing experts in the field of medical English is one major obstacle.’