Good communication is the foundation of patient safety

From next month responsible officers (usually the medical director in an NHS organisation) will have a legal duty to ensure doctors can speak an acceptable level of English to perform their jobs in a safe and competent manner.

There will also be a single national performers list. Previously primary care trusts held their own lists, which meant doctors who were poor performers could slip through the gaps between different local lists.

The Department of Health also plans to consult on proposals to give the General Medical Council new powers from 2014 to prevent EU-qualified doctors from being granted a licence in the UK where concerns arise about their ability to speak English.

Health Minister Dan Poulter said: “Patients should be able to understand and be understood by their doctor if we are to give them the best care they deserve … This is simply about protecting patients and having proper checks on a doctor’s ability to speak English.”

So what about pharmacists?

The General Pharmaceutical Council has called on the DoH to consider putting forward proposals to allow all health professions regulators the ability to test language skills. However, other health professions would need to wait for change in EU law before being granted similar powers. Try 2015!

So bureaucracy strikes again. So much for patient safety. Do we have to wait until a patient is harmed, such as in the case of German doctor Daniel Ubani, in other health professions before things change?

Pharmacy professionals who want to work in the UK and have qualified outside the EU are already subject to language tests. So it seems ridiculous that we have a situation that allows EU pharmacists to be exempted from language testing, even when English is not their first language.

Good verbal communication between healthcare professionals and patients is a necessity to ensure safety. Without an acceptable standard of English this seems an impossible task, no matter how much clinical knowledge a healthcare professional possesses.

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