Vietnamese medical students realise that English is the international language of Medicine. They can read it well—all have Laptops or i-pads and have easy access to radio and TV- but they know that they have problems in understanding spoken English and in speaking it. It is a language very different from their own but in schools and at university English is taught by other Vietnamese. Few can afford private tuition in spoken English as they are poorly paid. Young healthcare workers aspiring to gain scholarships overseas to further their studies realise that there is a need to improve their skills to gain acceptance in other countries. This applies to Europe, USA and of course Australia. Australia has become a favoured country in this respect: it is much closer than the US and Europe, the time zones are similar and many Australian tourists visit Vietnam every year.
For the last six years, twice a year, groups of Australians have travelled to Vietnam – mainly Hanoi – to run a four-day course in “medical” English. Each course, managed by the education department of a hospital, is heavily over-subscribed. Small groups of 8-12 with two Australians teaching pronunciation, grammar,
colloquialisms and medical terminology, use role-playing clinical scenarios in an interactive fashion. Not all the teachers are doctors — many are from other professions or are lay people. Inn September 2012 two Australian Vietnam Vets volunteered to join the group – one had recently had a joint replacement and played the patient to the Vietnamese doctor.
All the Vietnamese healthcare workers participate actively and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Sounds of laughter come from each of the three rooms used concurrently – it is amazing that both Australians and Vietnamese share the same sense of humour.
The four day course is structured so that the Australians each have 2-3 half days off to relax and see the sights. The Australian group is disparate and interact among themselves at dinner and at a 4-star hotel where they all stay.
They have the opportunity to mix socially with their Vietnamese colleagues and tour the overcrowded hospitals. This month a concurrent session is being run by Australian nurses for Vietnamese nurses over the four days.
Each course is fully evaluated and the results help improve the next visit. Welcoming and closing ceremonies, presided over by the Hospital Director, involve mutual exchange of gifts and short speeches. The two Australian Vietnam Vets gave an emotional speech thanking the Vietnamese for their warm welcome-saying “once we were enemies and it means a lot to us now to be friends”.
All the Australians pay their own fares and accommodation. The hospitals and university provide transport, teaching venues and equipment.
The visits allow mutual friendships to develop and are rewarding for both teachers and participants. It’s an excellent example of helping people without telling them how to run their own lives.
Kerry Goulston, Professor Emeritus in Medicine, University of Sydney