GPs interested in applying to work in Wales should not be put off if they do not speak the language, the Welsh Language Commissioner has told Pulse.
It comes after locals and politicians in Penygroes, Gwynedd, expressed fury that a retiring GP would not be replaced by another Welsh speaker.
It hit the headlines that Dr Morris Jones, who retires at the end of this month, is the only Welsh-speaking doctor in the three practices serving the area.
In response, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board officials said they are ‘actively supporting’ the new doctor to recruit a Welsh speaking GP to the practice.
Local Assembly Member Sian Gwenllian said she had written to the health minister twice over concerns the Welsh speaking service would be lost.
More than 75% of people living in the area speak Welsh and children and older people are among those most likely to need the choice of speaking in their first language the AM said.
Last year the Welsh Government launched a major campaign to promote Wales as ‘an excellent place for doctors to train, work and live’.
It includes relocation packages, training incentives and family friendly benefits.
Practices in Wales have been facing severe recruitment problems particularly in rural areas with the RCGP calling for more than 400 full-time equivalent GPs by 2020 to bridge the shortfall.
Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws said there was a real need for GPs to come to work in Wales and be able to practise effectively and there was support available.
‘There are health professionals and others in the practice who may be able to speak Welsh and we see it very much as a multidisciplinary team approach.
‘We do recognise the challenge but we want to think outside the box and look at innovative ways to support them,’ she said.
‘It doesn’t have to be a problem,’ she said adding that she would not want any prospective GP to be put off applying for a position.
‘We need to think this person doesn’t speak Welsh how can we enable them to work effectively.’
She said they had been looking at work done in other bilingual countries such as Canada on finding solutions.
‘We would say don’t be put off because there is a lot of support at the national and regional level.’
The Health Board also pointed out that ‘Primary care providers – including GPs – are independent, self-employed contractors, and therefore not bound by the Health Board’s Welsh language requirements’.
RCGP chair Dr Rebecca Payne who had just attended the Welsh language board meeting told Pulse it was ‘about being practical’.
‘We just need to think what can we do. It’s about making it easier for those who want to learn Welsh but also being creative in using the multidisciplinary team.’
She added that health boards needed to better resource GPs needing language support whether through paying a healthcare assistant to sit in sessions and translate or providing backfill to make it possible to attend a language class.
Dr Phil White, BMA Wales GP Committee member, said they recognise the importance of patients being able to communicate with their GP in their first language, in particular those with advanced needs.
‘We are, however, currently facing unprecedented recruitment and retention challenges in general practice across Wales and the rest of the UK.
‘It’s therefore unlikely that all GPs in Welsh-language areas will be able to speak Welsh and in requesting this, may cause further difficulties in recruiting into posts. He added: ‘We don’t want to give the impression that if you don’t speak Welsh, it could be a barrier to come and work in Wales.’