Researchers have called on the GMC to rethink its language testing policies for doctors wishing to join the NHS workforce.
A report supported by Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research (RAPAR) concluded that the English test scores currently required are ‘almost unachievable and unreasonable’.
The research focused on nearly 200 healthcare professionals, including 119 doctors, who failed the test between October and November last year.
Although GPs have backed the calls, the GMC said that while it wants to be as ‘flexible’ as it can, effective communication is vital for the ‘protection of patients’.
Researchers compared the current required scores for overseas and European medical professionals from UK registers to European and other international countries where English is the first language.
They also questioned those who had failed the test about the barriers to passing the English language requirement.
They highlighted that the issue disproportionately affects women with dependents, as well as refugees or asylum seekers, many of whom are unemployed, meaning that the cost of preparation courses and the exam itself are barriers towards their success.
In 2014, the GMC raised the threshold for doctors in the International English Language Examination Testing System.
The IELTS exam tests general knowledge, including topics such as archaeology, jam making and current affairs, which the campaigners say is irrelevant to the kind of terminology used by medical professionals.
However, earlier this year the GMC also added the Occupational English Test, which includes scenarios that doctors may face in the workplace.
But RAPAR has said that there is ‘little information’ about the new test, which originates from Australia and is ‘almost triple the cost of the IELTS’.
The researchers have now launched a campaign calling for ‘more realistic and appropriate English language requirements’ for overseas doctors and nurses seeking employment in the NHS, which has more than 700 signatures to date.
Lead researcher Dr Hiba Mohamed Alzamzamy, who was an ophthalmologist and an assistant professor in Sudan but failed her English language exam to work in the UK health service, said: ‘The English language test level now set by the GMC is unrealistic and very demoralising. Years of study and sheer hard work are going to waste.’
University of Manchester professor of general practice Professor Aneez Esmail, who is a GP in the city, has backed the campaign.
Professor Esmail said that when the NHS is so ‘desperate for extra staff’ it was strange that there is a ‘failure to recognise’ the contribution that refugees and other overseas healthcare professionals can make.
He continued: ‘These are highly skilled professionals and we need to help them to start their lives again – this will in turn help the NHS at a time of great need.’
Dr Siema Iqbal, a GP in north Manchester, said: ‘The NHS is in crisis with an ongoing and worsening staffing shortage. Surely it makes sense to ensure that barriers doctors are facing to working in the NHS are overcome.’
But GMC director of registration and revalidation Una Lane said: ‘When considering English language proficiency, we want to be as flexible as we can so that suitably qualified and experienced doctors can join the workforce as quickly as possible.
‘But it is vital for the protection of patients that those doctors coming to work here are able to communicate effectively. That is why we have a clear set of requirements to ensure all doctors applying to join the register have adequate and appropriate English language skills.’
The GMC has previously caused controversy over the testing of EU doctors on their English proficiency, with some raising concerns it could be ‘open to abuse’.
The Department of Health and Social Care issued a consultation report looking at proposed changes to the language controls for doctors in 2011, and recommended that the GMC should ‘begin language testing of EU doctors as soon as possible.’