GMC seeks powers to test doctors’ language skills

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 10 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5532
  1. Helen Jaques
  1. 1BMJ Careers

The UK General Medical Council is seeking powers to test the English language proficiency of doctors from elsewhere in Europe and of registered doctors whose language skills are called into question by complaints from patients.

The regulator and the Department of Health for England have launched a consultation on changes to the Medical Act 1983 to tighten the law concerning language checks for doctors.

At present, European Union regulations on the mutual recognition of qualifications prevent the GMC from testing the English language skills of doctors from other European countries who are seeking a licence to practise in the United Kingdom. International medical graduates from outside Europe, on the other hand, are required to meet minimum standards of English language.

The new 12 week consultation seeks views on two proposals, the first being how the GMC could ensure that the English language skills of doctors from the European Economic Area are up to scratch should concerns arise in the registration process.

Under this proposal, the GMC would be able to require doctors from other European countries to provide evidence of their English language capability after they have successfully registered but before they are issued a licence to practise. The GMC would also be able to require European doctors to undertake a language assessment test and to refuse a licence to doctors who failed to demonstrate necessary knowledge of English.

The second proposal sets out how the GMC would deal with fitness to practise cases where a patient has raised concerns about a doctor’s language skills or if such concerns arose during an investigation over fitness to practise. At present, the GMC cannot require a registered doctor to undergo a language assessment during a fitness to practise investigation.

The consultation suggests creating a new fitness to practise category of “impairment by reason of not having the necessary knowledge of English.” Under the proposed rules, the GMC would be able to insist that a doctor underwent a language assessment where concerns about his or her language skills had been raised, regardless of the doctor’s nationality or place of qualification.

If the doctor failed to undertake a language assessment without good reason, the GMC would be able to refer the matter to a fitness to practise panel and suspend the doctor’s registration or apply conditions to his or her registration.

The health minister Dan Poulter said that tougher national checks on overseas doctors were needed to ensure that patients in the UK were not put at risk by doctors who could not communicate effectively. “These new powers are an important step in making the system even stronger by allowing the GMC to carry out checks on a national level before they start work in the UK and prevent doctors who do not have the necessary knowledge of English from treating patients,” he said.

The government has already strengthened rules on language assessment at a local level by requiring “responsible officers”—senior doctors within a healthcare organisation who are responsible for evaluating doctors’ fitness to practise and making recommendations for revalidation—to ensure that any doctor appointed to a post had the necessary language skills for the job.1 It has also created a national GP performers list and given NHS England, which holds the new national list, the power to refuse to include a GP on the list where it was not satisfied that the GP had sufficient knowledge of the English language.

A BMA spokesperson agreed that it was “vital” to ensure that doctors working in the UK had the appropriate English language skills to communicate effectively with colleagues and patients. “The BMA believes that it is right that we consider enhancing the GMC’s powers to ensure doctors working in the UK can speak English well enough before they treat patients,” they said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5532



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