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New language checks on doctors start in summer

GMC reports strong support for tougher tests and inclusion of European doctors

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

More stringent language checks for overseas doctors who want to practise in the UK will also apply to European doctors and could start as early as June, the General Medical Council has announced. It has had strong support for its proposals, which it said will help ensure patient safety as well as treating European and non-European doctors more equitably.

The GMC reports overwhelming support for strengthening the requirements on language assessment. More than 90% of respondents to the public consultation on its proposals agreed that the GMC should ask European doctors to give evidence of their English language skills before they are granted a licence to practise, where it has concerns about their ability to communicate effectively; currently, legislation does not allow language testing of doctors from within the EU. Nine out of ten said the GMC should refuse to grant a licence to practise to European doctors who cannot or will not show they have the necessary knowledge of English.

There was also a ‘very high level of support’ (more than 95%) for allowing the GMC to require doctors to undergo language assessment during a fitness to practise investigation and before restoration to the medical register where there are sufficient concerns about a doctor’s English language skills. Eight out of ten agreed that the GMC should indefinitely suspend doctors who fail to acquire the necessary knowledge of English to treat patients in the UK safely.

The new checks, which are expected to take effect in June, will also mean that overseas doctors who want to work in the UK will have to achieve a higher score in the International English Language Testing System than at present – 7.5 rather than 7.0 out of nine.

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson (pictured) said: “Doctors who want to practise in the UK must be able to communicate effectively in English to ensure the safety of their patients.

“These new measures to ensure doctors from other European countries can communicate in English, combined with the higher test score requirements, will help us strengthen protection for patients. They will also bring about a greater degree of fairness between our requirements for European doctors and for those from outside Europe.”

He added: “Employers, including locum agencies, must also play their part, and ensure that all doctors for whom they are responsible can communicate and practise safely.”

The British Medical Association has welcomed the raising of the bar for all overseas doctors. Its director of professional activities, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, said: “It is vital for patient safety that all doctors, whether from the European Economic Area or otherwise, have an acceptable command of English to communicate effectively to ensure the safety of their patients.

“Since 2002 the BMA has called for language skills to be made a prerequisite for any doctors wanting to practise in another EU member state, and while we support freedom of movement it is important that patient safety is paramount at all times.”

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