Foreign doctors who cannot speak English are to be banned from working in NHS hospitals and clinics, the Health Secretary will announce today.The NHS will introduce mandatory language tests for doctors moving to Britain after training elsewhere in the European Union.
The decision follows a series of cases in which patients have died or suffered poor care as a result of doctors speaking sub-standard English.
The issue was brought to national attention three years ago when Dr Daniel Ubani, a German-trained GP on his first out-of-hours shift in Britain, killed David Gray, 70, by giving him 10 times the normal dose of diamorphine.
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference today, Andrew Lansley will say that the Medical Act will be amended so that doctors must speak good English to practise in Britain.
“I am determined that doctors who come from overseas to work here in our NHS must not only have the right qualifications, but also the language skills to practise here,” the Health Secretary is expected to say. “We will amend the Medical Act to ensure that any doctor from overseas who can’t use a decent level of English is not able to treat NHS patients. This is not about discriminating; we’ve always appreciated how much overseas doctors and nurses give to our NHS. It is simply about our absolute commitment to put patients’ safety first.”
There are more than 88,000 foreign-trained doctors registered to work in Britain, including 22,758 from Europe. They account for almost a third of the total.
Under the proposals, local NHS trusts would have a duty to check the language skills of foreign-trained doctors before they can be employed. In addition, the General Medical Council would be given powers to take action against doctors when there were concerns about their ability to speak English. At present, only doctors from outside the European Economic Area are routinely scrutinised for their language skills before being registered by the GMC.
This means that doctors from Canada or Australia are routinely tested for their language skills while those from countries such as Poland and France are not.
It had previously been thought that European Union laws ensuring the freedom of movement of labour prevented language testing. However, the European Commission has recently stated that the language tests would be legal.
Dr Ubani, who admitted he had never heard of the drug he gave to Mr Gray, was struck off by the GMC in June last year but still practises in Germany. His poor English meant he was refused work by the NHS in West Yorkshire but was accepted in Cornwall and Camb-ridgeshire, where he saw Mr Gray.
Since the case, the GMC and other NHS leaders have repeatedly warned that some foreign doctors’ language skills are so poor that patients are being put at risk.
Compulsory language tests for foreign doctors will raise concerns that the NHS could be left short-staffed, such is its reliance on overseas medics. Ministers believe that the majority will reach the necessary standard of English.
Mr Lansley will today deliver a robust defence of the Government’s health policy, saying that money is being diverted from cutting bureaucracy to front-line services.
“Unlike Labour, we will make sure that every penny of our investment goes right to the patients who matter, not the huge Labour bureaucracy which we inherited,” he will say. “And all that is why, since the election, we now have 1,500 more doctors and 5,000 fewer managers in the NHS.”
He will also claim that hospital infection rates have fallen and the number of people being treated in mixed-sex wards has fallen by more than 90 per cent over the past eight months.