Department of Health proposes new GMC powers to test doctors’ English language skills

Posted: 11/09/2013


A consultation has been opened this month (September 2013) as to whether the General Medical Council (GMC) should have enhanced powers to test doctors’ English language skills as part of the decision whether to issue a fitness to practise certificate.

The move comes following concerns that insufficient language skills on the part of medical staff are jeopardising the safety of patients under their care.

In 2008, David Gray from Cambridgeshire died after Dr Daniel Ubani, a doctor from Germany, gave 10 times the recommended dose of diamorphine after confusing it with another drug. An inquest into the death of Mr Gray, from Wisbech, revealed that Dr Ubani had injected the fatal dose, having arrived in the UK after just a few hours’ sleep for a shift at an out-of-hours GP service.

The current law protects EU doctors from being tested for language skills if they are licensed in other EU countries. Under the new proposals, GMC inspectors could act on any concerns raised about a medical professional working in the UK, although they would still not be able to test all doctors where no such concern has been raised.

The consultation, due to run until December 2013, states: “There is increasing concern that patients may be put at risk of harm through the inadequate English language capability of a minority of doctors [..]

“There is clear evidence that there is a need to give the GMC additional powers. The GMC has provided the Department with figures which show that in 2012 there were ten fitness to practise cases concluded by the GMC, which involved concerns about the language skills of doctors from within the European Economic Area (EEA). In addition, a survey of Responsible Officers by the England Revalidation Support Team (RST) in 2011, which covered just over half of all doctors, indicated that there were 66 cases where Responsible Officers have dealt with linguistic concerns about a doctor.”

Guy Forster, a specialist clinical negligence solicitor in the Cambridge office of Penningtons, commented: “It must be recognised that overseas doctors play a vital role in delivering healthcare in the UK. Nevertheless, it is common sense that any doctor working in this country needs to have adequate language skills to communicate with patients and other staff as part of their overall competence to practise. Patient safety must be the priority.

“The difficulty comes when considering whether the safeguards are robust enough not only to identify poor language skills but also inadequate clinical competence. One could question whether these reforms go far enough.”

For more on the consultation, click here.


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