- Some nurses do not understand basic phrases including 'nil by mouth'
- Strict EU laws mean nurses coming in from European countries cannot be tested on language skills
Nurses from Eastern Europe put NHS patients in danger because they can’t speak proper English, one of Britain’s top doctors has warned.
Lord Winston said yesterday that he was particularly worried about those from Romania and Bulgaria who had limited communication skills ‘even in their own language’.
He told the House of Lords they had been trained in a ‘completely different way’ to British nurses, and were not used to speaking to doctors or their own patients. There is a problem with language barriers.
Lord Winston, professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, warned that these poor communication skills were becoming widespread across the NHS and could only worsen if action wasn’t taken.
Under strict EU laws, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) watchdog is banned from testing nurses coming in from European countries on either their language or clinical skills.
Such tests are deemed to restrict the ‘free movement of labour’ – the same rules apply to doctors.
Clear communication: Lord Winston said nurses must be able to understand their patients
Some countries, however, including France, get round the rules by ensuring candidates are tested by local health boards rather than a national watchdog.
As the tests are not at a national level, they are not deemed to break the rules.
Lord Winston’s views were later supported by Lord Kakkar, who is a surgeon.
He told peers the situation was ‘intolerable’.
‘It is not right for fellow practitioners to have to work with these individuals,’ he said.
‘But most of all it is not right for citizens of our country, who at times when they are unwell and becoming patients in our healthcare systems need to be absolutely certain that the practitioners to whom they are exposed are competent, meet the standards required of medical practitioners in our country and therefore can with certainty provide the quality of care that citizens in our country deserve.’
Hearing evidence at the Lords’ inquiry into free EU movement of medical workers, the peers were told that patients were being put at risk by incompetent doctors and nurses who cannot speak English or understand basic medical terms such as ‘nil by mouth’.
Lord Winston said his own experience working abroad had shown him that nurses from Eastern Europe were not used to communicating with doctors or patients.
‘That communication between the patient and the professional is of vital importance,’ he said.
‘We run the risk of losing it with this issue of nurses who can’t speak the English language.
INSTANT COMMENT by JULIA MANNING
The number of European nurses registering to work in Britain has doubled since strict checks on their competence – including language skills – were scrapped last October. In the first five months alone, almost 1,500 new nurses arrived.
The General Medical Council said that 22,060 – around 10 per cent – of doctors licensed to work in the UK were from the European Economic Area, including 1,862 doctors who qualified in Romania and 722 with Bulgarian qualifications.
In one case, a GMC spokesman said, a foreign doctor’s husband contacted the council to register her because she could not speak English herself.
A Department of Health spokesman said: 'This government is determined to make sure that foreign healthcare professionals are not allowed to work in the NHS unless they have proven their competence and language skills.
'We have already taken steps to strengthen the current system by introducing a duty for responsible officers to check the qualifications, experience and references of all doctors, including foreign doctors.
'The nursing regulator is also working on the development of an aptitude test which will put in place a powerful control for assessing whether the clinical skills and knowledge of European Economic Area (EEA) migrants meet UK standards.
'But we want to go further, working with the GMC, to strengthen the whole system of local checks on the suitability of doctors, including their communication skills.