Overseas doctors with a "poor grasp" of the English language will be barred from working for the NHS, under new rules announced by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley yesterday (4 October).
In his address to the Conservative Party during its annual party conference in Liverpool, Lansley said, "proficient language skills were equally as important as proper medical qualifications" when practicing as a doctor in England.
He revealed a commitment to empower the General Medical Council (GMC) to take action against doctors who fail to communicate to the standard required.
"This is not about discriminating," said Lansley.
"We have always appreciated how much overseas doctors and nurses give to our NHS.
"It is simply about our absolute commitment to put patient safety first. We will change the law to ensure that any doctor from overseas who does not have a proper level of English will not be able to treat patients in our NHS."
Chief Executive of the GMC, Niall Dickson claims the lack of language controls meant the GMC had a "glaring hole" in its regulatory defences – a hole that the government has now signalled will be closed.
He welcomed the announcement, claiming it to be "good news for patients".
"The government is now committed both to changing the Medical Act, giving the GMC new powers, as well as creating a better system to make sure employers in England only take on doctors who are competent and up to date," he said.
"Patients in the UK must have confidence that the doctor who treats them has the communication skills needed for the job and that the GMC can take action when they do not have those skills."
The British Medical Association (BMA) has also voiced its support for Lansley's proposal, deeming it a "positive way forward".
Dr Hamish Meldrum, chair of the BMA, also hopes the GMC's new powers will extend to doctors working in the UK but not employed by the NHS.
Despite adding its support to the mix, the NHS Employers organisation warns the government that any new arrangements to test a doctor's communication skills must be "pragmatic and workable".
The government must also be mindful it will be required to provide guidance and clarity to NHS employers during this time of change, said Dean Royles, director of the representative body.
Do you support Andrew Lansley's commitment to language tests for overseas doctors? Your comments (terms and conditions apply):
"I do support Andrew Lansley's proposal. Putting this assessment in place is well overdue. The EU provides for freedom of movement of its citizens however UK trained doctors at least would always consider language skills when applying for work overseas.He/she would not go over to Germany or France for that matter to work without considering his/her language skill appropriate to the job. If foreign doctors were mindful of the very important role they play in caring for the sick holistically in an unfamiliar country more effort would be made by them to equip themselves with the necessary spoken knowledge which is so basic a part in the delivery of care" – V Henry, London
"What is new for goodness sake! Overseas Drs have always taken English language exam both written and oral. The people who need to take this exam but fail to do so are the European Drs. It is about politics, nothing about patients' safety. I had in my previous life as a hospital Nurse worked with European Drs we could not communicate with. The so-called overseas Drs being spoken about in derogatory terms are often from the commonwealth countries eg. India, Nigeria, Pakistan etc where the language of instruction is English and medical curricular are British. A good number of them that came here before EU expansion are consultants and professors in their own fields. Can Andrew Lansley find something more articulate way to promote the health reforms, which by the way I agree with in parts. The fact that much of the British populace are so ignorant of what goes on in the NHS is the reason politicians can mount the podium and talk utter foolishness and get away with it" – Tina Chigbo, London
"Absolutely!!! In order to work in any other field of work, employees are required to undertake proficiency tests in English, as well as numeracy. It is bizarre that doctors who need good communication (including language) skills are allowed the privilege of working in a very critical area without the requisite skill even a supermarket check out person needs to get a job. Hopefully, the RCN will introduce similar requirements for nurses employed in the UK from abroad, especially EU. Doctors & nurses from abroad from outside the EU are required to demonstrate language skills in English & numeracy skills & this rule should be applied to all. There have been a number of incidents where locums have been employed & have misdiagnosed & given patients deadly doses of medication - some of these incidents could have been avoided" – Rose, London