Doctors must be able to communicate with their patients

Yesterday I spoke to BBC Record Europe about possible EU rule changes to ensure doctors are proficient in English before being allowed to practice in the UK.  This comes after a small number of very serious incidents, including the case of David Grey, killed by a painkiller overdose prescribed by a German doctor previously refused work due to his poor English skills.  Some blamed the current European Professional Qualifications Directive for preventing employers from refusing to let a doctor practice based on their language skills.  That simply isn’t true, in fact the current Directive states that they must have the language skills necessary to perform their duties in whichever EU country they are working in.

However, it does highlight the need to make the European rules stronger to ensure that these kinds of mistakes can never be made again.  Currently it is up to the individual employer to make a judgement on whether a doctor has the necessary language abilities, so we need to look at a more comprehensive system of assessing language skills.  The European Commission has published a green paper with ideas to update the Directive, and the European Parliament has also been voting on the ideas.  With my Labour MEP colleagues I will be supporting stricter controls on language assessment to make sure all healthcare professionals can communicate effectively with their patients and colleagues.

We will also be calling for a robust alert system so that when a doctor is struck off in one country, they are not allowed to put more lives at risk in another EU country.  Whilst we wait for European rules to be improved the NHS needs to be able to communicate and share information effectively about the suitability of doctors.  However their ability to do this is one of many things that Andrew Lansley’s breaking up of the health service is putting in jeopardy.

Of course we need a balanced approach and any rule changes should not discriminate against highly skilled and much needed healthcare professionals from around the EU, who provide a valuable service to Britain.  However, communication with patients is key to the work of any healthcare professional and we need to make sure we are only employing people who can work safely and effectively in the British health service.

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