NHS foreign doctors must speak English, say ministers

By James GallagherHealth and science reporter, BBC News

Dr Daniel Ubani was struck off the UK medical register


Foreign doctors wanting to treat NHS patients in England will have to prove they have the necessary English skills, the government has confirmed.

Concerns were raised after a German doctor, Dr Daniel Ubani, gave a patient a fatal overdose on his first and only shift in the UK.

He had earlier been rejected for work because of poor English skills.

From April there will be a legal duty to ensure a doctor’s English is up to scratch before they are employed.

Foreign doctors will have to prove they can speak a “necessary level of English” before they are allowed to treat patients in hospitals or in GP surgeries, the Department of Health said.

Dr Ubani had been refused work by Leeds Primary Care Trust, but was later employed in Cambridgeshire.

From April, there will be a national list of GPs to prevent doctors being rejected in one part of the country and then cropping up somewhere else. GPs will have to prove their language skills before being put on the list.


Health minister Dr Dan Poulter said the measures were about protecting patients, who “should be able to understand and be understood by their doctor if we are to give them the best care they deserve”.

“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,” he said.

New powers for the body which regulates doctors in the UK – the General Medical Council – are also being discussed. A change of law could give it powers to test the communication skills of doctors from within the EU as it already can for non-EU doctors.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said tighter rules would “strengthen patient safety”.

He added: “Our position is clear – patients must be confident that the doctor who treats them has the right communications skills to do the job.


“If doctors cannot speak English to a safe standard then the GMC must be able to protect patients by preventing them from practising in the UK.

“At present we can do that for doctors who have qualified outside Europe but we cannot do it for doctors within the European Union.

“We have been working hard for some time to close this loophole in UK legislation which has caused so much concern to patients and their families and we are delighted that the government has decided to act.”

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “New language checks for doctors are welcome, and long overdue.

“Lessons from the past have served to highlight the tragic consequences of poor language skills.”

Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers organisation, said foreign doctors had made an “invaluable contribution” but safety needed to be the “top priority”.


Some vocabulary:

–          NHS: british national health system

–          To shift: to change

–          To scratch: to cuto r make a mark on something with a sharp thing.

–          GP: general practitioner

–          Loophole: a way of escaping a difficulty.

–          Overdue: late


I have chosen this article because I consider it’s quite interesting for us to know that in the future if we want to work abroad, particularly in England, we do have english skills.

I think that getting on with the pacient is more important than diagnose him/her, if we can’t understand what the pacient is telling us, we won’t arrive to a good diagnosis, as it happens in the article.                   

Many diseases don’t have cure, so what the pacient needs is not only someone who tries to cure him but also someone who listens and encourages him, and without a good level of english it won’t be possible.

As a medical student, I think we must practise our english so that we can’t forget it during our degree, because probably we will need it during our career even though we rest here in Spain working.

I would like you to give your opinion about the importance of knowing  languages in our career and about the possibility doctors have to make mistakes in the diagnosis or treatment.

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9 respuestas a


    I absolutely agree with what my classmate Marta said.
    Firstly I think English is very important for all doctors even if they don’t want to work abroad. Nowadays, most important research articles and advances in the health world are written in English, as it is the universal language. Doctors should be fluent in English to understand medical terms and access to new sources of information so that they can progress in their careers.

    In the other hand, as the article shows, it is important to have a good knowledge of this language to work in other countries and to understand the patient, not only to provide them an appropriate drug treatment, but also for the patient to feel heard and attended. In this profession, one of the most important things is that the patient trusts the doctor, and this only is possible trough a good communication.

  2. SANDRA dijo:

    In my opinion, and as future doctors, I consider that English is very important for our profession. Most of the articles of many research studies are written in English, so it would be recommendable to have a good level of English to understand them almost perfectly.

    Moreover, referring to the article above, if we would want to work abroad, English is something essential. As we like, here in Spain, that our doctor treats us and speaks to us in our language, it is normal that in English speaking countries they require the same. I think that it is the minimum we can ask, as this will avoid many misunderstandings on both sides. If we know that our doctor speaks our language, we will be confident that he/she can provide us the proper treatment and give us security and confidence; because if not, it can happen that the doctor doesn’t understand what the patient is saying or that the patient doesn’t understand the patterns of its medication, for example. Misunderstandings sometimes happen even when both speak the same language, so if any of both parts don’t speak the language properly, the likelihood that some confusion may happen has increased considerably.

    For that reason, and to conclude, a good communication between doctor and patient is necessary in any country, and to make it possible, both parts should speak the same language.


  3. Belén Leal Mora dijo:

    The author of this text emphasizes the importance of having the required English skills to work abroad as a doctor. According to English government, and just as my classmates have already said, it is extremely important to establish a fluent communication with the patients not only for making an exact diagnosis and a precise treatment but also for trying to help them with the difficult situation they are probably going through. As Marta has point out, sometimes patients only need to be listened, and we must do it. We can also encourage and give them some tips for living with their illness in the best possible way, and if we are working in a country where people do not speak our language, we have the duty to express ourselves in our best way possible.
    Thus, I am able to say that English is so useful to work abroad not only in England, and not only in a country of the European Union. We are luckily enough to have a language with which we can communicate with most people if we travel around the whole world. This is the reason why if we are going abroad to work or simply as tourists, we need to speak a little English, and especially if we are going to work as doctors.
    To conclude, I completely agree with new measures approved in the UK that obligate new doctors that arrive in a country which is not theirs, to prove their language skills before being admitted to work there. In addition, I feel that these tests should also be passed in all the countries to start working as a doctor because, as it is said, patient’s safety is the “top priority”.


    It is obvious the need to a good command of the language people will speak to you in the hospital you will be working at. And in case that language spoken is minority, English is the solution. Otherwise, this German doctor’s case is not explained enough for me. Perhaps the mistake and their consequences were due to bad practice.
    Referring to the main topic we are talking about, I do agree with my classmates about the justified necessity of a good English level. Firstly, it is useful for a good communication between doctor and patients in other countries. And between doctors and the rest of the work team as well. This could avoid mistakes in diagnosis which is already difficult enough. Secondly, in this globalized world, it is not rare to have foreign patients; so the most international language, English, can be needed when you least expect it.
    I think, reasons we all are giving evidence why we all have chosen this English course.

  5. ANA NARBONA dijo:

    As Iris just said, I believe that my mates and me are students aware of the importance English laguage has nowadays and that is why we have chosen Scientific English as the optional subject. We all agree in considering English as an essenthial tool for our formation and for our future. Sure enough you must know at least English to be able to work abroad, but this is not the only requirement: If you want to be a competent physician, you must be up to date, and in order to read about the improvements and changes it is indispensable to have some basics in English since the imfo is usually in that language. In addition I find this article very suitable to open another debate about how important is the comunication between the patient and the doctor. We all agree that in order to work in a foreign country it’s necessary to know the language of the area, but what happens when is the patient the one who doesnt speak the official language?


    I have found this article very interesting because I think communication is terribly important, especially in a human-oriented field like medicine. If the patients speak English, doctors should learn English to be able to tell their patients when something is wrong. Similarly, if the patient speaks Chinese, then the doctor should know how to speak Chinese. So I agree with if you want to work in England, you have to know English. Because if the doctor and the patient can’t communicate, then the chances of something going wrong increase.

    As my classmates have said, english is important to doctors all over the world primarily because much of the medical and scientific literature is written in english. In addition, it is common for international meetings to hold their conferences in english. That it is why we have choosen this subject as optional, to improve our level and to have more knowledge about medicine in english

    To conclude, “english is pretty much the language of the scientific community”.

  7. Carolina Pérez Benito dijo:

    From my point of view, the chosen topic is very important. A good doctor is not only one who knows how to diagnose and treat the patient’s disease, but also a good doctor knows how to listen and understand the patient.
    For treating a patient is vital to know and be able to communicate. Communication between people, between doctors and patients, it is important to reach a profit and expected end. A doctor can tell a lot about a disease and its treatment, but if you do not know to communicate with the patient will not be effective. Speaking the same language is crucial for the correct diagnosis and treatment of patients.
    In fact, not understanding or not master a language in this work can cause irreversible damage and even death of affected patients.
    If doctor moves to work at another hospital with different language must know the language, understand and be able to hold a conversation. It is true that the experience is achieved with time and that the language will be improved gradually but is essential to know the basis for communicating and no mishaps occur.
    Today, in our profession, learning English is very important in order to communicate with the majority of patients.

  8. marta sojo dijo:

    this article is mine

    Marta Sojo Elias

  9. BELÉN dijo:

    I agree with all my classmates, knowing English is very important for your future, here or in any country. All the important studies and scientific magazines are written in English. Even if English is not the official language of the country you go. But if you’re a doctor, you should have basic skills of the official language of the place you work in. I also think that if you work for a long time, for example, in Catalonia you should know a bit of Catalan and Spanish. Not only because it’s a cultural gain, but because it would improve your relationship with the patients. That’s only my opinion, of course.



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