A letter to NHS HR directors has revealed it would be possible for the rules on joining the UK register for overseas nurses and midwives to be changed pretty quickly.
The letter, seen by Nursing Times, hints that the controversial IELTS language test, which many claim is slowing or deterring overseas nurses from joining our healthcare system, could soon be softened.
In the letter, NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimer said he had been making approaches to the Nursing and Midwifery Council about the high number of overseas nurses that were failing the IELTS test.
He writes that any changes are “likely” to happen before the end of this year or start of 2018, dependent of course on the NMC’s final decision.
Last week at our Nursing Times Deputies’ Congress, employers were raising concerns about the test, which they feel is keeping them shortstaffed.
“If I were an HR director or nursing director struggling to fill shifts, I would be keen to see the gates lowered too”
And yesterday, latest NHS figures revealed there were almost 11,500 nursing and midwifery vacancies being advertised on the health service’s official jobs website in March in England – a 17% increase in a year.
At the same time, another set of official figures showed a fall in the number of nurses and midwives employed in the NHS in England. The Royal College of Nursing said the two sets of figures were a “double whammy of bad news” for the profession.
Therefore, if I were an HR director or nursing director struggling to fill shifts, I would be keen to see the gates lowered too.
The IELTS test relies on reading and understanding a piece of text on any subject – potentially fine art and beekeeping, for example – which can seem to be irrelevant when a nurse is more commonly asked to fetch pain relief or take someone to the toilet, rather than comprehend the finer points of apiculture.
But, although I think many would argue that it is right to encourage the NMC’s stock take of the IELTS test, we must be careful it does not result in a dumbing down of nursing and the importance of communication in the profession.
The fact some trusts are not seeing such huge IELTS failure rates must prove that some organisations are able to support their prospective hires through this process.
And if they can, why can’t more organisations – we need to roll out this best practice and see it as a universal ambition to support overseas nurses communicate more accurately and effectively?
Mr Mortimer commented in his letter about making the English language skills more clinically relevant, which is also something I am in favour of. That will make them safer, which is what the NMC is concerned about after all.
“Overseas nurses also get additional training to help them understand the nuances of our language”
In some organisations, I know that overseas nurses also get additional training to help them understand the nuances of our language. This is important so that when a patient says they “want to spend a penny” the nurse does not reach for the patient’s purse or point them in the direction of the newsagent.
The NMC could make itself very popular with employers – just by turning the tap on more fully and allowing more people to enter the register. But of course, its job is to protect patients; not be popular. It is not growing new fans over its firm position on English language testing, and I am sympathetic to its position.
But we must be careful not to underestimate the importance of good communication skills.
We’ve recently made nursing a graduate-only entry profession in this country, so we must ensure that in making it easier for internationally trained registrants to join the register, we don’t dumb down the profession or underplay the skills it takes to be a nurse.
While, most readers probably think the greater danger to the public is having no nurses at all, we must retain the ability to be selective about who is on the register and that they can communicate clearly with their colleagues and their patients.
Perhaps a better starting point for a workforce strategy might be to simply pay nurses more?