English in the Medical Workplace: Building Bridges between Doctors, Patients and Academia – by Nicolas Felber


Source: Darko Stojanovic, Pixabay

In the past thirty-odd years, medical professions in Switzerland have undergone a distinct shift in their educational programs, daily practices, and in the politics surrounding them. One may ask themselves how a constantly evolving curriculum, ever-changing demographic of patients, and changes in the political landscape influence or alter the usage of language for medical professionals. In the pursuit of answers, an experienced medical doctor, whose practice has been a mainstay in the city of Basel for multiple decades, offered to shed light on contemporary developments during an unstructured interview.

The interviewee, let us call him ‘MD’, originally hails from Bern, but moved to Basel shortly after his doctorate when the call of love beckoned him. He established a general practitioner’s office and has been an active member of the medical, political, and academic landscape ever since. In the more than twenty years that he has spent in the local medical sphere, he has been able to observe, deliberate on, and ultimately influence issues of language for medical professionals in Basel. Through his elaborations, one may gain insight into the actual linguistic workings of the medical field and how they have been changing consistently for decades.

Let us delve into a medical professional’s linguistic career chronologically and start with their education. MD adamantly underlines how Latin lost almost all of its previously held importance in the medical field. While he studied Greek and Latin philology in preparation for his medical program, students nowadays are exempt from such endeavors and favor a deeper education in the English language. Why is that, though? Whereas medical journals and the relevant literature was highly reliant on Latin before and during the studies of MD in the 1980s, a shift started shortly thereafter, which saw the emergence of English as the dominant language in medical education. Its popularization goes as far as the implementation of English terminology for diseases that were previously Latin-exclusive. MD likens this process to the prominent changes in the main language for ambassadors; French as the formerly dominant diplomatic language has also been challenged extensively by English. Whereas some purists may see problems with the disappearance of Latin, MD sees it as a natural development and shifts his critical eye to the actual training students receive in their usage of any language. From his perspective, students should already be at a high level of language competency when they enter academic training. This is not the case, however. He repeatedly runs into problems working with young scholars that are incapable of writing in an academically pleasing manner in his co-authorship of peer-reviewed articles. MD observes a distinct decline in the abilities of young medical professionals to write adequately in English. Whereas their German may very well be serviceable, English has emerged as the scientifically used language and its proficient usage is therefore a requirement for the successful publication of an article. Questioned regarding ways to alleviate this issue, MD vies for the implementation of additional language training during medical programs or changes to the curriculum at high schools not only to improve their capabilities as authors, but also their ability to engage with a wide variety of patients.

The importance of English does most definitely not end with academic training and education. It is an ever-present feature of a medical professional’s daily business. Whereas English was already used occasionally when MD first started working as a general practitioner, its importance in daily interactions with patients has burgeoned in the past twenty years. Initially, Basel’s geographic location of being nudged cozily in between Swiss, French, and German territory and the proximity of an airport may have led to speakers of a myriad of languages showing up at MD’s practice every now and then. Due to (geo-)political developments, however, the frequency of said patients appearing has skyrocketed. MD points to the very recent – and devastating – war between Ukraine and Russia that led to a steady stream of refugees pouring into his practice. While I could focus on additional points of interest in the interview regarding the ever-increasing importance of English for medical professionals, the current impact that the war has on all of us highlights how English acts as a lingua franca and is therefore focused on. MD expounds how he works around language barriers with refugees that are unable to converse in either English or German. Based on a pre-established network of translators – mostly laypeople – he is able to communicate with refugees in need of treatment. English serves as the common ground, due to its prevalence as an L2 for people around the world. With the ultimate goal of helping those in need, MD is able to instrumentalize the English language’s status as a lingua franca to treat speakers of a language that he has no knowledge of – in this case Russian or Ukrainian. This highlights one of the most crucial skills that a medical professional must have in his repertoire according to MD: the ability to communicate clearly and efficiently with one’s patients – no matter what language is chosen as a medium.

As a concluding remark, it remains to be said that the importance of the English language for medical professionals in Switzerland – and especially the city of Basel – must not be underestimated. Despite it not being an official language, it has attained the status of lingua franca for Swiss medical professionals and is essential in their education, academic work, and daily practice.

by Nicolas Felber

Would you like to listen to the interview? You can do so here.