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Language Problems in Health Care Sector

The number of foreign-born doctors and nurses in Finland has doubled since the year 2000. In some localities, over 15% of doctors are or foreign origin. The trend has brought skilled professionals into the country, but also language problems and cultural clashes.

Image: Yle

Most foreign health care sector professionals working in the country are from Russia, Estonia and Sweden. In 2007, there were about 10,000 people of foreign origin employed in the health care sector, the largest share being doctors and dentists, but also nurses and cleaning staff.

Nationwide, foreign employees make up less than three percent of all personnel. However, there are regional variations. For example, in the Kymenlaakso hospital district the native language of 16% of doctors is something other than Finnish.

The district's Medical Chief of Staff Pasi Pöllänen says that municipal services have to take doctors from wherever they can get them.

"If we don't have enough of of out own, a chief of staff has to take who comes to the door. Language skill is one of the biggest issues. If languages skills are sufficient, they generally adapt well. But, unfortunately there are always a few whose language skills are not good enough and chiefs of staff who are in charge don't keep such people on for long," explains Pöllänen.

The National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health, Valvira, that is responsible for licensing health care professionals, is well aware of the language problem.

"Various disagreements, matters that require clearing up, are found to be related to these people a bit more than in general. The background often includes language difficulties and miscommunication," says Medical Chief of Staff at Valvira.

Language exams are required for licensing of professionals in the social and health care sector only for those who originate from outside the EU. For those who come from other EU countries, it is up to employers to decide if language skills are sufficient to do the job. For example, a high level of language skill is need in working with patients suffering memory impairments in order to establish understanding and trust.

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