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Responsible officers to be given powers to test all foreign doctors

Responsible officers will be able to order mandatory language testing for all foreign GPs before allowing them to practise in the NHS, under new Government proposals.

A consultation launched today by Department of Health is proposing to hand new powers to 500 officers across the UK, to ensure doctors working in their organisation are fluent in English, and understand NHS processes and medicines.

The plans, first announced by ministers in October 2011, are designed to tighten procedures in a bid to avoid a repeat of the Daniel Ubani case, where the German locum killed patient David Gray by administering 10 times the standard dose of diamorphine, on his first out-of-hours shift in the UK.

A Pulse investigation last month revealed that PCTs have so far ignored demands from the Government and the GMC to step up efforts to test EU doctors' clinical competence and language skills, with just a handful of doctors tested in the past 18 months. 

Under current rules, only doctors from outside the EU are required to undergo language tests, with European laws precluding testing EU doctors when they register. But ministers want all foreign doctors to have to prove their language skills and familiarity with the UK system.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said he was ‘determined to stop' incidents where doctors without a good grasp of English can work in the NHS.

Launching the consultation, Mr Lansley said: ‘Sadly, we are all too familiar with what can happen when qualified doctors don't have a good command of English. This puts patients at risk and I am determined to stop this.'

‘By giving new powers to responsible officers we can make sure that doctors not only speak English before they treat patients in this country, but are also competent to work within the NHS, making sure that they understand NHS processes and medicines which is as important as language to the quality of care patients receive. I hope everyone gets involved and has their say.'

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: ‘This is a vital issue for patients - they must be able to have confidence that the doctor who treats them has the communication skills needed for the job.

‘These changes would significantly strengthen the employer checks in England, with responsible officers having a legal duty to work closely with the GMC.'

‘ These proposals, along with the Secretary of State's commitment to changing the Medical Act to strengthen our powers, will mean that patients across all parts of the UK receive the assurances they need about the doctors who treat them.'