Campaigners for tougher GMC language checks believe the changes could help prevent a repeat of errors that saw German locum Daniel Ubani kill a patient on his first UK shift in 2008.
Changes proposed by the DH would allow the GMC to test the language skills of EU doctors on its register before issuing them with a licence to practise. A consultation on the plans opened on 7 September and closes on 2 December.
The BMA said it is right to ‘consider enhancing the GMC’s powers to ensure doctors working in the UK can speak English well enough before they treat patients’.
The government said that there are around 5,000 applications each year from European doctors to register with the GMC.
Since April, responsible officers have had to ensure that doctors have sufficient English language skills. Doctors unable to prove their fluency in English are now barred from joining a single national performers list.
The consultation reads: ‘The GMC has provided the DH with figures which show that in 2012 there were ten fitness to practise cases concluded by the GMC, which involved concerns about the language skills of doctors from within the European Economic Area (EEA).
‘In addition, a survey of responsible officers by the England Revalidation Support Team in 2011, which covered just over half of all doctors, indicated that there were 66 cases where responsible officers have dealt with linguistic concerns about a doctor.’
West Midlands GP Dr Stuart Gray and his brother Rory have campaigned for tighter checks on overseas doctors since their father David was killed by an overdose of diamorphine administered by Dr Ubani in 2008.
A BMA spokesman said: ‘It is vital for clinical safety that doctors working in the UK have the appropriate English language skills to communicate effectively with colleagues and their 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.’
EU leaders reached a provisional agreement in June that could allow member states’ regulators to test doctors’ language skills. The draft deal could see an alert system set up, obliging EU states to warn other countries within three days if a health professional commits a crime or faces disciplinary procedures.