As part of your PLAB journey to the UK, you are required to take an English proficiency test as the first step. This can be in the form of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) or the Occupational English Test (OET). Passing one of these tests allows you to apply for the PLAB, apply for a Tier 2 visa, and register with the GMC. 

Today, we will be considering the differences between both of these examinations and helping you decide whether to take the IELTS or OET as part of your PLAB journey. 

What is the IELTS?

The IELTS is an English language proficiency test, which assesses your ability to communicate in four main ways: reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is the most popular English proficiency test worldwide, sat by millions of candidates each year, and has many centers across the world. 

The IELTS is not a healthcare-specific examination and you can be assessed on a wide range of potential topics. This could include reading academic articles about geology, writing an essay on agriculture, or discussing a topic on cultural trends. Therefore, your preparation is fairly broad and you must be ready to be assessed on any theme. 

You need a minimum score of 7.0 in each of the sections and an overall score of 7.5 in order to apply for the PLAB. 

The type of IELTS exam you must sit is the ‘Academic’ one; this is the only type that is valid for the PLAB and application to medical posts in the UK. 

What is the OET?

The OET is an English language proficiency test that assesses your ability to communicate in a healthcare-specific context. The OET is not as widespread as the IELTS; it is sat by fewer candidates, is newer, and has fewer test centers around the world. 

There are different versions of the OET depending upon what kind of healthcare professional you are, including versions for dentists, optometrists, radiographers, and nurses. For you, the version for doctors is of course the relevant one. 

The OET has been tailored specifically for doctors and all the scenarios you encounter are related to using English in the healthcare setting. For example, the writing section may involve writing a referral letter to a colleague and the speaking section may involve speaking to a simulated patient. This is super helpful in preparation for your PLAB 2, where your success depends upon effective communication skills in the clinical context. Furthermore, some candidates find it easier to speak English in the context of the medical profession, and for this reason, they prefer the OET. 

The OET has four sections; reading, writing, speaking and listening. You need a minimum score of 350 or a B grade in each of the sections in order to apply for the PLAB. 

Which one is easier?

On paper, the OET should be easier because you are only assessed in a healthcare-specific context. For many international medical graduates, this makes it easier because much of their medical education was in English. Therefore, they are quite familiar with the vocabulary used during the test. 

However, on the other hand, the OET requires you to employ communication skills that are important in medicine, such as empathy. For those who are not used to such a clinical consultation framework, this may be quite difficult, especially so early on in the journey. If you are able to learn these skills for the OET, they will put you in a great position for your PLAB 2. 

So, what are the differences?

Let’s summarise some of the main similarities and differences in the table below:




SectionsTests academic English in a wide contextTest English within the context of the medical profession only
Cost£150 to £200587 AUD
CentersTest centers in over 140 countriesTest centers in over 40 countries
Test DatesRegularlyFewer sittings 
Tier 2 VisaAcceptedAccepted
ResourcesThe IELTS has been around for a longer time and has more resources out there. Fewer resources out there
Score RequiredAverage: 7.5 (Each Section: minimum of 7)At least a ‘B’ Grade in each section
Reading SectionThree reading passages followed by a variety of questions which include MCQs, identifying information, matching information and headings, sentence, note, and table completion.

Part A: Read 3 to 4 texts rapidly and fill in the relevant information into a summary paragraph.

Part B: Read six short workplace texts on a health topic and answer a set of MCQs.

Part C: Read two long presentation passages on a health topic and answer a set of MCQs.

Writing Section

Task 1: Describe, summarise or explain information displayed in a graph, table or chart.

Task 2: Write an essay in response to an argument

Letter Writing: Write a referral letter, letter of discharge, transfer or to a patient based on a set of case notes.
Listening Section

Listen to four recordings on a variety of every day, social and academic topics. You are then required to complete questions which may include a series of multiple-choice, matching items, diagrams, notes, tables, charts, sentence completion or short answers.

Part A: Listen to a consultation and take notes

Part B: Listen to presentations and complete MCQs, short answers, or complete sentences

Part C: Listen to a health-related presentation and complete MCQs, short answers, or notes

Speaking Section

Part 1: Examiner will ask you general questions about yourself and everyday topics.

Part 2: You will be given a specific topic to talk about.

Part 3: You are asked further questions about the topic in Part 2.

Consists of two role-play scenarios; where you play the role of the doctor and speak to a simulated patient, relative or carer.

How do I make a decision?

Making a decision depends on many factors. You may decide to choose the IELTS if:

  • There are no OET centers where you live. 
  • You have a solid grasp of English already. 
  • You want to sit a test that has a wide range of resources out there. 
  • You have a tighter budget and want to spend less. 
  • You are happy to be assessed in English outside of a healthcare-specific context.

You may decide to sit the OET if:

  • You are more comfortable speaking English in a healthcare setting. 
  • You don’t mind the relatively few OET resources out there. 
  • You want to sit a test that will have practical use as a doctor. 
  • You have a more liberal budget and don’t mind paying the higher fees. 
  • You have easy access to an OET test center. 
  • You want to sit a test that will prepare you for your PLAB 2 as well.

We hope you benefited from this comparison and that it helps you make your language test decision!