Fertility expert and television presenter Lord Robert Winston has courted controversy by warning about the potential risks to healthcare posed by nurses with poor command of English.
In the House of Lords lat week, he pointed to particular problems with nurses coming from some Eastern European countries.
“Communication between the patient and the professional is of vital importance,” Lord Winston told peers.
“We run the risk of losing it with this issue of nurses who can’t speak the English language and have been trained in a different way. I’m particularly concerned about nurses coming from the east bloc of Europe. For example: Romania and Bulgaria.”
He urged ministers to fight for better communication standards in its dealings with other European states.
“I hope we can make the strongest case possible to make sure we get proper communication between patient and carer,” he said.
His comments came in a Lords debate on different training standards for health workers coming to work in the UK from within the European Economic Area and outside it.
At present, European union directives prevent the Nursing and Midwifery Council from testing EU nurses and midwives on basic language competency. Additionally, nurses and midwives with qualifications from an EU country are granted “automatic recognition” of their competence to work in the UK – a rule based on minimum EU training standards that were set in the 1970s.
This contrast with those from outside the EU who must take the International English Language Test and are required to undertake the overseas nurses (or adaptation to midwifery) programme – a 20 day course with a three to six month period of supervised practice.
In a statement released ahead of the debate, the NMC said: “The current process presents a risk to patient safety, with concerns over EU nurses and midwives’ language competence and knowledge of modern nursing standards.”
In response to Lord Winston’s comments, health minister Earl Howe acknowledged the problem was an issue of major importance for care quality, but said local measures had been strengthened.
He said: “In the UK we have implemented a system of checks at a local level through duties on primary care trusts and guidelines to local NHS employers.”
But Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said regulators, such as the NMC, should be able to test for language competency and that it should be a requirement “anchored in European law”.
He said: “UK nurses are required by the NMC to re-register every three years and must demonstrate that their skills are up to date. Conversely, if a nurse from the EU has not kept their skills up to date or worked for a number of years as a nurse, the NMC is still required to register them.
“Equally, there is a responsibility placed on employers to ensure that the language skills of all staff are of a high enough level to allow them to communicate effectively with patients and colleagues. Therefore, we would like to see checks in place to ensure continuing levels of competence for all health professionals.”
He added: “This is not to discriminate against nurses from any particular country, but rather to ensure that the highest standards of care and patient safety are maintained and that any barriers to that effect are removed.”