Ex-Waikato health boss defends Medical Council language policy

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Ex-Waikato health boss defends Medical Council language policy

The former Waikato health chief has defended the Medical Council of New Zealand’s language policy after a US doctor called it bureaucratic “nonsense”.

Retired cardiologist and ex-head of medicine at Waikato District Health Board Dr Clyde Wade said the Council is tough on language requirements because English competency is critical to medical practice here.

He was responding to a Herald report on Sunday about a US doctor who was asked to take an English test when applying to practise in New Zealand. The request was dropped last Friday after a month of email exchanges.

Language testing goes both ways, Clyde said. He too had to sit a test in 1972 as a graduating medical student to qualify for practice in the US.

“The exam consisted of a two to three-hour paper in the morning and another one in the afternoon.

“At lunchtime there was an oral English exam for 30 mins, where a man from the US embassy (about 25 of us were sitting the exam in Wellington) would read out a phrase and we would have to write an answer in our exam books. Most of the questions were at primary school level and were greeted by gales of laughter.”

He believes the US doctor’s Indian name had nothing to do with the Council’s language assessment. “It would have been the same if he was German, French or Polish,” Clyde said.

Dr Kannan Subramaniam agrees. “It would be right for MCNZ to assess someone’s proficiency in English whether they are named Benjamin Button, Ramandeep Kahlon or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, if they are new arrivals to New Zealand,” said the global medical lead at pharmaceutical company Viatris.

“Surely applying to be a doctor in a foreign country one would expect due diligence and scrutiny,” said Justin Hunt, a Kiwi software business owner in Japan.

Doctors applying for NZ registration must show their ability to speak and understand English is “sufficient to protect the health and safety of the public”, according to the Council’s language policy.

This can be done in eight ways, including having primary medical qualification from an NZ, Australian, UK, Irish, US, Canadian, or South African medical school; at least two years of work in an English language institution; or passing a test like the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

Several readers wrote in to share their experiences of sitting English exams to qualify for work here and overseas after the Herald report.

“Well as a NZ’er I had to sit a written and oral English test to work in America, so fair’s fair!” said a senior Kiwi doctor who did not wish to be named.

“I just thought it was an amusing additional requirement in the application process and I was surprised that I didn’t get 100 per cent on the test!” an anaesthesist said about her UK experience.

David Cittadini believes the leeway New Zealand has shown in lifting the US doctor’s test requirement would not have happened there. “There are zero dispensations in the USA, if you have to sit an English test you have to sit an English test,” he said.

“Any form of immigration across any country is very difficult emotionally, legally and administratively,” said Cittadini, a Kiwi living in the US.

Others were sympathetic of the hoops people have to jump through to prove their language competence.

Early childhood teacher Sonja Steinmetz was also asked to take an English test when she was applying for her provisional teacher’s registration in 2016.

Ex-Waikato health boss defends Medical Council language policy

Sonja Steinmetz has a diploma in early childhood education from the University of Auckland. Photo / Supplied

The Singaporean of mixed German and Indian descent had just completed her graduate diploma from the University of Auckland the year before. She also had a degree from the University of Bristol, studied acting in New York, and worked as a radio DJ for an English language station in Singapore.

The test cost a few hundred dollars, a significant sum for Steinmetz who was earning minimum wage as a relief teacher at the time.

She reached out to her primary and secondary schools in Singapore, asking them to dig through 15-year-old records in order to write letters to the Education Council (now the Teaching Council) to show that she was indeed a student there and all the classes used English.

The entire process was done in hard copy and took months, so she hears the frustration felt by the US doctor.

“I thought it was laughable that they wanted me to go as far back as primary school. Who cares even if I learned it in sign language?

“I’d already gone to two universities where English was the main language.”

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