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Tougher English language testing needed for EU nurses, doctors, says RCS

17 August 2016

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Leading medics are calling for more stringent English language requirements for doctors and nurses after it was revealed that patient safety could be at risk.

Data from the General Medical Council, provided to the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) under a Freedom of Information request, revealed that 29 doctors from the European Economic Area (EEA), outside the UK, faced allegations relating to “inadequate knowledge of English language” during 2014/15.

Meanwhile, four doctors from the EEA (again, excluding the UK) have been suspended or had restrictions put on their practice because of problems with their English with a number of cases still yet to be decided.

For comparison, 10 doctors from non-EEA countries, where UK regulators are able to test the clinical language skills of applicants, faced such allegations in the same period with none being suspended or facing restrictions.

This is despite the fact that there are more doctors from non-EEA countries: 26% of doctors on the medical register are from outside the EEA compared to 11% from the EEA.

The most common way for applicants to be tested on their English language proficiency is through the widely recognised International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

However, the practice materials for the IELTS include tasks such as describing your hometown or answering questions about sporting events.

In a briefing paper, the Faculty of Dental Surgery (FDS) at the RCS says regulators should find ways to encourage applicants to demonstrate their clinical language skills that are standardised across health professionals. 

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) currently accepts lower scores on the IELTS than the GMC.

Professor Nigel Hunt, dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, said doctors, dentists, and nurses from EU and non-EU countries are “vital” but, “unquestionable that such staff should be able to communicate clearly with patients in English about their clinical problems, illnesses and treatment.”

He said: “While the professional regulators are able to require proof of the clinical language skills of non-EU applicants, the same checks do not apply to EEA applicants and our fear is that this could be putting patients at risk.”

Hunt added that post-Brexit negotiations “offer an excellent opportunity” to ensure that testing is “vigorous enough to ensure patient safety”.

He continued: “It is also disappointing that the General Dental Council and Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) do not match the GMC’s requirements on assessing EEA professionals’ general language skills. At the very least we would like to see all regulators copy the GMC’s lead.”