The General Medical Council (GMC) is to be handed new powers to check the English language skills of doctors practising in the UK.

Last week (February 25th), the Department of Health unveiled its plans to introduce language competency checks to ensure medical practitioners can speak English to the right level for the job. From April 1st, the GMC will be legally obliged to make sure GPs and surgeons are able to communicate with English-speaking patients.

A new central list of GPs working in the UK will also be introduced. Currently, primary care trusts maintain lists of the doctors working within their jurisdiction. Replacing these with a single list that incorporates details of the GPs’ language skills will mean it is not possible for a doctor to fail a language test in one location but go on to practise in another.

Last year, Language Insight reported that the Northern Ireland healthcare sector had deemed the £5 million it spent on translation and interpreting services at its hospitals over three years to be money well spent. A spokesperson for the Belfast Health Trust told the Belfast Telegraph that healthcare institutions had a duty to make sure patients have equal access to language services when they seek medical assistance.

Yet just as important as catering to non-English-speaking patients visiting UK GP surgeries and hospitals is ensuring all doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff can communicate with patients who speak English as their mother tongue. This is what these new checks should help facilitate.

Under current rules, doctors who qualified outside the European Union – including those from Australia and Canada – must prove they can speak English to a safe standard. However, those who qualified within the European Union are not subject to the same criteria. This will change with the introduction of the new guidelines.

Dr Dan Poulter, health minister, said: “These new checks will ensure that all doctors who want to work in the NHS can speak proficient English and to prevent those who can’t from treating patients. There are lots of excellent doctors from around the world working in the NHS – this is simply about protecting patients and having proper checks on a doctor’s ability to speak English.”

Writing for the Express, broadcaster Jimmy Young notes the current system allows hundreds of thousands of EU doctors to work in the UK without them first being tested for their English language abilities. He points out there have been cases where patients have received the incorrect dose of medication or have not understood their diagnosis due to their doctor’s unfamiliarity with British medical terms.

The Government Response to the House of Commons Health Committee Report of Session 2012-13, released in February, noted that a duty for ‘Responsibility Officers’ to measure the language competency of the doctors they oversee should be legally introduced “as soon as possible”. This would mean amending the existing Medical Act to bolster the GMC’s powers; giving it the ability to conduct checks on GPs’ language skills where concerns about them have been raised. A category for doctors deemed to have deficient English knowledge would also be introduced to inform decisions on whether particular GPs should have conditions placed on their licence.