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‘We need a national scheme to check minimum language standards’


Overseas nurses bring valuable skills to the NHS but their standard of English must be adequate for the roles they fill, insists Dr Mike Milanovic

Lord Robert Winston recently warned in the House of Lords that nurses who have a poor command of English pose risks to healthcare. So how can we ensure that all overseas nurses working in the UK can communicate effectively with other members of staff and their patients?

Currently, the Nursing and Midwifery Council requires healthcare professionals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) to demonstrate their language skills in the rigorous International English Language Testing System. This approach works well – but European Union rules prevent the NMC from conducting similar tests on nurses and midwives from within the EEA.

When setting language requirements for the workplace, there are a number of factors to consider. First, it’s important to set a minimum level of English language proficiency for all relevant frontline healthcare roles. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages developed by the Council of Europe is a good place to start.

“Successful language learning is not just about understanding grammar and vocabulary – it is about knowing how to communicate in real-life working situations”

Along with setting a benchmark on language proficiency for new nurses, it is equally important to ensure that all overseas nursing professionals in employment meet this level too. If someone falls short of the required level, it’s important to provide language support and set achievable targets so their progress can be measured. Successful language learning is not just about understanding grammar and vocabulary – it is about knowing how to communicate in real-life working situations.

Nurses in the UK come from all over the world and this brings many benefits to the sector. For example, overseas nursing staff can speak one or more languages in addition to English, which plays an important part in developing a truly multilingual healthcare sector. In short, they add to the valuable skills that the healthcare sector can call upon – but their standard of English must be adequate for the roles they fill.

The responsibility for checking the skills of EU nationals lies with the relevant Health Service Authority. A national scheme that sets and checks minimum language standards for all overseas workers in the healthcare sector would make a useful contribution to this area. But, for such a scheme to be effective, it needs to be linked to reliable, fair and internationally recognised qualifications.

Dr Mike Milanovic is chief executive at University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations


Readers' comments (2)

  • I 100% agree with Dr. Milanovic and Lord Winston (and I applaud him for being so honest). This is not a case of discrimination, it is simply being sensible and safe on behalf of the people we care for. I would not expect to be given a job in a foreign country if I could't understand or be understood clearly in their language so I expect the same in my own country. I would like to see this extended to nursing homes though as certainly where I live there has been an influx of foreign nurses taken on in nursing homes because they accept reduced wages. Communication is vital to good nursing care and if it falls short and results in a severe or fatal mistake who is to blame - the NMC for not preventing poor English speaking nurses from working in the first place?; the nurses line manager for not bringing it to the NMC's attention?; or YOU for not speaking up when you know your colleague is dangerous? We are all accountable.

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  • michael stone

    As JH on Today would say 'ISN'T THAT OBVIOUS !'

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