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Language tests for nurses less pressing than for doctors, says DH


A ban on language testing for nurses is to remain in force, even though the government is overturning that on doctors on the grounds that they pose more of a risk to patients.

The Department of Health last week announced it would allow the General Medical Council to test the language skills of doctors from within the European Economic Area (EEA) who want to work in the UK.

Legally, regulators are prevented from checking whether EEA healthcare workers have a good enough grasp of English to work with patients.

However, workers from outside EEA, for example Canada and Australia, routinely have their language skills scrutinised.

The Department of Health confirmed to Nursing Times that the ban on testing EEA nurses’ language abilities would not be overturned, as it has been for doctors.

A spokesman said the DH was focusing on areas where the risk to patients was most “acute” and that doctors often worked as locums or were self employed.

Nurses generally worked in an “employed environment”, he said, meaning concerns about a nurse’s knowledge of English could be reported to managers.

Royal College of Nursing head of policy Howard Catton responded: “A lot of nurses do work within trusts but a lot work on their own and routinely one to one with patients. Because of the extension of nurses’ roles, they’re dealing with people who are vulnerable, who have complex needs.

“If patient safety is to be the pre-eminent principle of the NHS…it’s impossible to draw a line between the medical workforce and other healthcare professionals.”

The DH’s decision followed the furore over Nigerian-German locum GP Daniel Ubani, who was convicted last year of unlawfully killing a patient.

Mr Catton said the latest decision on language testing was “political” and that the government appeared to have a “blind spot” regarding the role of the multidisciplinary workforce.

The NMC said it would continue to lobby the government to allow it to impose language tests for European nurses. At a health select committee hearing in June, the regulator’s assistant director for nursing and midwifery policy Katerina Kolyva agreed with an MP who said the current ban was “alarming”.


Readers' comments (16)

  • Absolute bull! The risk and problems to both staff and patients by Nurses not speaking English are at LEAST equal to that of a Doctor!

    This has much more to do with money than patient safety, heaven forbid something affects the quotas of foreign Nurses coming in eh?

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  • Oh, see I thought nurses spoke to patients, administered them drugs, observed signs and symptoms, made referals to other healthcare profesionals, etc, which all needed a good standard of communication skills? I must be wrong then? I must be doing my job wrong because the government obviously don't expect that high level of skill out of me.... I suppose us nurses only need enough understanding of the english language to just about understand what the doctor is asking us do and reply "yes doctor", "no doctor".

    What a fool I am!

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  • michael stone

    I do not disagree with you all - clearly nurses should be able to speak English.
    But I suspect, the Ubani case prompted this one. When a foreign locum GP, gave a patient a 10X overdose of diamorphine, and killed him in the patient's own home.
    I'm not entirely sure - you would know - that foreign nurses, are quite as likely to do that ?

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  • OMG how much more rubbish do we need to bring our profession into further disrepute. For goodness sake good communication is good communication and bad communication is bad communication in any language at any status. This is clearly nonsensical DISCRIMINATION. Get a grip. Who on earth makes these stupid decisions. I'm speechless. Which for anyone who knows me says a lot.....

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  • Michael, there are now Nurse prescribers. Nurses are just - if not more - likely to see patients in their own home! They are called community Nurses! And there are many other problems that a lack of language skill can cause other than medication mistakes.

    Anonymous | 7-Oct-2011 11:01 am well said!

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  • michael stone

    mike, I agree with you - nurse prescibers can be as dangerous as doctors.
    But my gut instinct - not sure - is that this stemmed from Ubani. I seem to recall that a PCT parachuted him in for weekends only, as cover for their OOH GP Service, and he injected a patient with a 10X diamorphine dose. He claims he never heard of diamorphine.
    If PCTs are 'parachuting in' overseas nurses with a similar lack of induction, clearly it should also stop. And the 'verdict' - it is more important re doctors than re nurses - could be wrong: I'm just saying, I think the Ubani thing, is where that is coming from, which is perhaps partly why it applies to doctors.

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  • This particular discussion/ban probably did stem from that one high profile case, but believe me Michael this has been a huge problem that both Doctors and Nurses have been complaining about for a fair while now, even before Ubani.

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  • Damn, sorry, didn't mean to hit submit. Damn laptop. As I was saying ...

    I do see your point though Michael, and they probably won't change a thing about foreign Nurses language skills until there is a high profile incident that forces them to look at it as happened in this case with Ubani.

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  • michael stone

    mike | 7-Oct-2011 4:55 pm

    I feel sure - without any evidence except what I casually read in the press - that it has become a huge problem, and I agree that it should be addressed.
    I suspect that the NHS needs foreign nurses - well, it did, anyway - and the 'historical idea' was that most nurses would be fairly junior and 'supervised', and their language skills woudl be brought up to speed on the job.
    Just my suspicion - like many things !

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