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JAN 27/2014

What to expect from the new NHS language checks for foreign doctors

Medical professionals from around the world who are planning to travel to the UK in search of work should be aware of new laws regarding linguistic proficiency that may affect their career plans.

Over the coming months, the process of applying for NHS jobs for overseas doctors will be expanded to include new checks on language skills - a move designed to ensure professional competence and protect the safety of patients.

However, for foreign-born healthcare staff, this represents another regulatory requirement they will need to educate themselves on before heading to Britain.

The background to the new law
It is widely acknowledged that overseas doctors make a vital and valued contribution to NHS care provision, but in the past there has been a small minority of health workers who have been handed licences to practise in the UK without the necessary command of English to adequately communicate with patients.

An NHS survey of senior doctors in 2011 - which involved just over half of all practitioners - indicated that there were 66 cases during the year in which senior doctors had to deal with linguistic concerns about a foreign member of their local medical staff.

In rare cases, language barriers of this kind can lead to misunderstandings that jeopardise patient safety.

The legal changes
As such, the Department of Health introduced new rules in April 2013 to ensure that language checks on medical staff are carried out at a local level in England. Responsible officers now have a legal duty to make sure a doctor can speak the necessary level of English to perform their job in a safe and competent manner.

In addition, a single, centrally-held national database was introduced that lists every GP who is eligible to treat NHS patients. To be accepted on to this list, all doctors need to demonstrate their ability to speak English.

Following this, the government has made progress on further plans to amend the 1983 Medical Act to give the General Medical Council (GMC) more power to take action where concerns arise about a doctor's command of the English language, extending its jurisdiction to cover staff from the European Economic Area (EEA).

Currently, the GMC is only able to assess language skills of doctors who qualified outside Europe, but the government is looking to change this in order to ensure that the more than 26,000 practitioners from the EEA on the medical register are all properly equipped to practise in the UK.

The GMC is also set to gain powers allowing it to assess any doctor - regardless of their nationality - if language concerns arise during a fitness-to-practise investigation, even if the professional has been practising for some time.

The next steps
A public consultation on these new rules was concluded in December 2013, with the laws set to come into effect at some point this year.

In the meantime, it would be advisable for any overseas doctors planning to apply for work in the UK to learn all they can about the legislation and ensure they are able to comfortably meet its requirements.

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