Medical English Countable and Uncountable Nouns (with free online practice quiz)

Knowing when and how to count nouns is one of the most difficult areas of English. Even 2nd language English speakers from languages related to English still find it hard to use the right articles and quantifiers 100% of the time. The first step is to know if the noun is countable or not. I recommend compiling a list in your notebook of the nouns you commonly need to use, along with their countable/uncountable forms and context in example sentences. There are no easy rules that will allow you to get it right every time. Unfortunately you’ll have to learn the countable/uncountable status of each noun separately. You haven’t really learned a word until you know how to use it. There are some guidelines that apply to medical English as used in the OET (Occupational English Test) though:

  • If a noun is countable, it ‘a/an’ should be used to introduce it to the listener for the first time. ‘The’ should be used when the noun is already considered to be ‘definite’ (specific or known to the listener).
  • Generic drug types are are always used in plural form: e.g. antibiotics, beta blockers, proton pump inhibitors.
  • Body parts are countable. You should usually use “his / her”.
  • Disease names are uncountable. E.g. diabetes, heart disease, cancer.
  • Wounds, tumours etc. occur in specific parts of the body, so they’re countable. (‘He has cancer’ and ‘he has a melanoma on his left calf’ are both correct.)
  • Aches and pains are countable as they occur in a specific part of the body. Some other symptoms and sensations are uncountable, like nausea.
  • Some words can be both countable and uncountable, with different meanings. ‘A society’, ‘society’, and ‘societies’ all have different usages and meanings. Make sure you learn the correct form in context.

Click here for the practice quiz to test you on the guidelines above. If you’re not yet a member of the site, you will be asked to join for free to access the quiz.

OET Speaking – English communication skills for health professionals: Greeting the patient

Whether you’re consulting a real patient or an examiner in the Occupational English Test (OET), greeting the patient appropriately makes a huge difference to their impression of you and sets the tone for the whole interaction. Using the wrong greetings and lead-ins to the conversation can demonstrate a low level of English or even seem rude. To greet the patient in an appropriate way for the situation, you need to consider two things:

1) The patient

2) The environment

The Patient

In general, everyone is addressed the same way in casual everyday English. Special titles or other polite language for rank or seniority are rarely ever used. So you can speak to most patients in exactly the same way. However, if there are any important practical differences in the patient’s case, it’s good to show that you are aware of these and can handle them in English. For example:

A parent taking a small child to see you:

[su_quote]Doctor: Hi guys. Please, make yourselves comfortable. So who’s sick today?
Parent: My daughter.
Doctor: I see. [/su_quote]

A patient with limited English knowledge:

[su_quote]Hi. I’m Doctor Smith. Please. Sit down. Tell me if I speak too fast. How can I help?[/su_quote]

Should you refer to the patient by their first name, their last name or no name at all?

In actual professional practice in Australia and New Zealand, the common custom is to refer to all patients by their first name, no matter how old they are. This creates a close connection as a trusted equal.

But the patient’s name is not usually given on OET Speaking test roleplay cards. You can ask the examiner for a name, but you won’t score any more marks for using a name in the consultation. The only situation where using the name may help is when you especially need to create a connection and get the attention of a stubborn patient.  For example:

[su_quote]I’m worried about you John. If you don’t improve your lifestyle like we’ve discussed, you’re at risk of a more serious heart attack.[/su_quote]

Known vs Unknown Patients

If the roleplay card somehow indicates that the patient is already known to you (e.g. “regular checkup”, “returning”, etc), you’ll lose marks if you introduce yourself. You instead need to greet the patient accordingly, for example:

[su_quote]Hi, how’ve you been? What can I help you with today?[/su_quote]


The environment

The patient’s hospital bed:

[su_quote]Hi, how’s it going? My name’s Sarah, I’m the nurse on duty today. You’re almost ready to be leave the hospital so I’ve just come to talk to you about a few last things to take care of before you leave. [/su_quote]

Your consultation rooms:

[su_quote]Come in! Make yourself comfortable. Now, what brings you here today?[/su_quote]

That should give you a few greetings and introductions to start with. The most important thing to take away is that the roleplay cards will give you clues about how to approach the situation with appropriate language. Read the roleplay card very carefully, imagine the scenario vividly and mentally rehearse your opening before you begin the exam.








What Makes Online English Tutors Different?

Over the decades, language educators all over the world have refined their understanding of the ideal methods for language learning, arriving at a consensus of certain key principles, like a comprehensive level of language input, a progression from controlled to free practice and immediate feedback. Not surprisingly, these factors that make language learning successful are also often the same things that make it more enjoyable.

The problem is that traditional educational structures (like classroom learning and textbooks) are not graded to the individual student’s level and don’t provide enough high quality instant feedback.

The Online English Tutors method was developed to use more up-to-date methods to give the student more targeted language input and more high quality instant error correction in one-on-one practice with a real native speaking teacher. Using a combination of online quizzes, exam preparation self-study and individual practice with an experienced native tutor allows our students to achieve results in a few hours of teaching time that would take months in traditional classroom study.

The Original Online Occupational English Test Expert – New Site Design

Online English Tutors was founded in 2009 in response to demand for quality online ESL English tuition, particularly for the Occupational English Test (OET) and IELTS. We have just redesigned our site, allowing us to add more features and better security for you.  All courses and practice materials are still available, and more new content is coming soon to clarify common student problems with the Occupational English Test and IELTS. So if you’re looking to make the necessary improvements to your English to finally pass these difficult tests and put them behind you forever, you’ve come to the right place.

John O’Loughlin


Online English Tutors

Should I take IELTS or OET?


A lot of students ask me whether IELTS or OET is the best option for them. Putting aside the specifics of your requirements for migration/work/study (some people need to take both IELTS and OET) and focusing purely on the tests themselves, here is a short list of differences for you to be aware of in making your decision.

Consistency of Content and Difficulty Level 

IELTS: Questions are tested in practice tests and special IELTS-partner schools all over the world and measured for difficulty. Selected questions are then incorporated into the real exam. This difficulty profile is then used to scale the exam results, to keep the difficulty of the exams consistent over time. In spite of this, there are some anecdotal reports that the standard required to achieve a band 7 may have increased gradually over the years, although not stated officially by IELTS. In general, IELTS is a very rigorous system and it’s much more likely to have variations in your English over time or over different topics than it is to sit two IELTS exams with widely differing difficulty levels.

OET: Because of the much smaller size of the organization, OET is not able to use the same methods to ensure the consistency of the exams. OET instead shapes the total set of grades from a particular exam according to a scale (similar to university grades). OET has also made more adjustments to its format than IELTS over a shorter period of time. There are also anecdotal reports that OET may have even made more adjustments than those it has announced, for example, increasing the speed of the listening test conversation.

The Speaking Test

Both are examining your ability to hold a natural conversation. The difference is that one focuses on a particular type of professional conversation, whereas the other is open to any topic that is considered to be general knowledge. Because the OET doesn’t assess your professional knowledge, you can prepare to pass by focusing on communication skills – practicing using natural phrases, intonation, to politely and authoritatively lead the conversation. If you have experience in professional practice in Australia or another English speaking country, that will make the OET Speaking Test a lot easier for you. If you have years of experience of natural conversation practice with native speakers, that will make the IELTS Speaking test much easier for you. The difficulty with IELTS is the broad possible pool of topics you might need to talk about. Some students try to prepare for this by learning a large amount of vocabulary from dictionaries and writing short speeches to memorize and use in the exam. This approach generally doesn’t work, and it definitely won’t be enough to get you a Band 7 on its own.

OET: Professional consultation only. Can mostly prepare by learning non-specific communication skills, grammar and pronunciation.

IELTS:  All general knowledge topics. Must be careful to use natural speaking language, not written English vocabulary.

Both: Require strong improvisation ability and natural conversation skills. A formula approach will be obvious to the examiner and will not score B in OET or 7 in OET.

The Writing Test

OET: Fairly easy for nurses. The standard seems to be higher for some other professions such as medicine. The word count is very strict. Aim for 200, plus or minus 10 words. Most students can pass after 4 or 5 private lessons.

IELTS:  General Training does not require a formal writing style, so people with little academic background but good grammar and a naturally flowing writing style can achieve a high mark (Often candidates from Europe and South America). Again, formulaic writing will not trick the examiners. Both Academic and General Training exams will uncover all the flaws in your English! Most students can achieve a 1 band score improvement after 4-5 private lessons.

The Listening Test

 OET: The OET Listening test asks you to write short notes to fill in a report about a patient and a summary about a speech. There are often multiple options allowed for each answer. The examiner is often asked to accept anything that includes particular keywords. The difficulties with OET Listening are that the audio conversation is much more natural, and sometimes includes mumbling and Australian slang expressions. Another problem several students have told me about is that OET Listening test rooms sometimes have background noise and poor quality sound systems, making listening very difficult. As mentioned in above, there are anecdotal reports that the speed of the conversation may have increased and may no longer match the official practice materials supplied by the OET centre for a fee.

IELTS: A much less natural audio script, requiring you to fill specific keywords into gaps. The marking is extremely strict and you will lose marks for uncapitalized proper nouns, incorrect grammar, and incorrect spelling when the word is considered to be commonly known. Easier than OET for people with a more technical approach to the language, rather than extensive experience in Australia / New Zealand. Harder than OET for people who have trouble focusing on each individual word.

The Reading Test

OET: Really only difficult for people who never read or don’t have the right strategy. The target to score B is only around 60%, but this varies depending on the scores of your competitors. For example, 15 minutes is given for Part A. As a native speaker, I can complete it in 4 minutes and achieve 100%. If you’re having trouble, take an interest in learning about new developments in medicine by reading academic articles.

IELTS: General Training is relatively easy if you know the conventions of everyday written English texts like advertisements and magazine articles. Academic IELTS Reading is difficult for anyone. It will give you a good idea of how hard it is to complete a degree at a top-tier university in a second language.


I won’t recommend one over the other because it totally depends on your background. Is it possible to prepare for both at once? For your health, I would strongly recommend you don’t! Focus on one, give it your all, and improve your English naturally through practice. And don’t forget, if you need help, just let me know!