Doctors with poor English to be banned within months
Medics must make the grade under new rules
Foreign doctors with poor English will be banned from working in Irish hospitals within months, the Sunday Independent has discovered.
Strict EU regulations mean authorities here are currently unable to test the language skills of medics with limited English.
Guidelines under the Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive state that doctors from the European Economic Area cannot be subject to any restraint - such as a rigorous English language test - that is not placed on Irish workers.
The directive allows free movement within the EU of professionals, such as GPs and other medical specialists. Also included are nurses, midwives, dental practitioners, pharmacists, architects and veterinary surgeons.
It means authorities here are prevented from directly examining a doctor's competency in the use of medical terms, or a medic's ability to clearly communicate with English-speaking patients.
However, the EU directive governing these equality rules was recently amended to allow language testing for professions where there are "patient safety implications".
In light of the changes, the Medical Council confirmed it is set to alter guidelines so that EU-qualified doctors will now have to show how fluent they are in English. The change will require foreign medics to prove they are competent in English before they can register with the regulatory body and practise in this country.
A Medical Council spokesperson confirmed the changes will be implemented once a Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill - which is being drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel - is enacted into law.
The Department of Health said the bill would be published by the end of the year, subject to "no major issues arising". "It is proposed to provide for the separation of qualification recognition from registration," it added. "Currently, a person whose qualification is recognised has to be registered."
However, under the new system a number of requirements will have to be met between recognition of qualifications and registration, including "language testing".
Under existing rules, doctors from outside the EU must sit an English language test to show they have the skills needed to work in the Health Service Executive (HSE). The Medical Council has long argued for legislative changes so that it can also examine the English language competency, including the use of medical terms, of EU-trained doctors.
The inability of certain medics to adequately converse with patients and colleagues has long been a cause of concern. In one high-profile case, a senior house officer from Romania was unable to take a pulse and had difficulty conversing due to poor English.
In a statement, the Medical Council stressed those recruiting medical staff need to take an "active role" in ensuring doctors are able to effectively verbally interact with patients.
The health sector remains the key area for recruitment, with the HSE having to cope with a shortage of nurses and doctors. More than 2,000 doctors, nurses and other medical staff were recruited from overseas last year as the exodus of young Irish health professionals continues.
The HSE is the biggest employee of non-EU medical workers in Ireland.
This inflow into the Irish health service comes as a significant proportion of young Irish nurses take advantage of a variety of career options in the UK and further afield.
The Middle East, with the promise of tax-free salaries, has emerged as a magnet in recent years. Many Irish doctors who work in other countries also do so to gain experience in a range of hi-tech health resources on offer.