Language tests for doctors still a concern says GMC

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The safety of patients is still at risk despite new EU proposals on English language testing of overseas doctors, the medical regulator has warned.

EU doctors will still be able to register in the UK without being tested on their English or medical competence under the new plans.

However, the EU directive says language testing can only take place after a doctor has already had their qualifications accepted by the regulator.

And it suggests language testing should only then take place if there are specific concerns about an individual doctor.

The General Medical Council (GMC) said patient safety was still at risk and called for clarification of the detail in the directive.

Parts of the directive suggest regulators should only intervene and language test doctors when there are “serious and concrete doubt about the professional’s sufficient language knowledge”.

The GMC wants blanket English language testing at the point of registration, not after a doctor has already been accepted. The council believes it is important to test the language skills of all doctors, not just when concerns have been raised about their performance.

Under current rules the GMC also cannot test clinical competency of doctors coming from the EU, even though it would like to do so.

However, the regulator welcomed a clause in the directive for member states to inform each other when a doctor has faced sanctions that affect their registration.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the General Medical Council said yesterday: “This proposed directive covers a number of important issues that affect the safety of patients.

“We are pleased to see that it includes, for the first time, a requirement for regulators across Europe to tell each other proactively when action has been taken against a doctor’s registration.

“The proposed changes on language requirements will however raise serious concerns for patients.

“We will study the detail carefully but it remains our view that the final directive should provide greater safeguards for patients.”

The directive also proposes introducing a voluntary “professional card” – an electronic certificate which regulatory authorities could exchange securely over the internet.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley responded, yesterday saying: “For too long patients have been let down by lax EU rules which have allowed doctors to operate in the UK without the necessary safeguards.

“That’s why I am bringing in new rules on checking doctors’ language skills and new powers to take action against doctors who can’t speak English properly.

He added: “However, the details of the Commission’s proposals are still unclear and we will need to ensure the final wording allows the NHS to introduce checks which are fair and workable.”