Foreign doctors face language tests
The General Medical Council (GMC) could be given new powers to test the English language skills of doctors arriving from Europe.
At present, EU rules prevent the GMC testing doctors for competency in English but a change in the law - proposed by the Government - would allow it to do so if it has concerns.
While the GMC would not have a right automatically to test all doctors, the shift means it could act on worries raised when medics try to register for work in the UK.
This could mean GMC inspectors checking for language competency when looking at qualifications, how long doctors have been registered in other countries and what experience they have. Red flags may include doctors turning up with interpreters, poor English in interviews or poor written English on application forms. Any worries could then prompt full testing of the doctor's language skills.
The move comes after a series of high-profile cases, including Dr Daniel Ubani who killed a patient in 2008 with an overdose of diamorphine after confusing it with another drug. Dr Ubani, from Germany, injected David Gray, from Cambridgeshire, with 10 times the recommended dose after arriving in the UK for a shift following just a few hours of sleep.
The new plans would also allow the GMC to assess any doctor if language concerns arise during a fitness-to-practise investigation. At present, the GMC has no powers to carry out such checks during its hearings.
Health minister Dan Poulter said: "Overseas doctors make a hugely valuable contribution to the NHS but it is clear that tougher checks are needed. We have already strengthened the way doctors' language skills are checked at a local level. These new powers are an important step in making the system even stronger by allowing the GMC to carry out checks on a national level before they start work in the UK and prevent doctors who do not have the necessary knowledge of English from treating patients."
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: "We are delighted that the Government is consulting on changes to the Medical Act to give us new powers to check the English language skills of all doctors when we have concerns about them. This is an important move that will help protect patients and will be welcomed across the country."
A spokesman for the British Medical Association (BMA) said: "It is vital for clinical safety that doctors working in the UK have the appropriate English language skills to communicate effectively with colleagues and their patients. The BMA believes that it is right that we consider enhancing the GMC's powers to ensure doctors working in the UK can speak English well enough before they treat patients."
At a local level, staff called responsible officers - appointed senior doctors - already have a legal duty to make sure doctors can speak English to perform their role. Since April, there has also been one single national list which every GP has to be on before they can treat NHS patients. Research suggests there were 66 cases in 2011 where senior doctors dealt with linguistic concerns about a doctor locally. The new changes are expected to come into force next year. A 12-week consultation on the proposals will run until December 2.