EU rules on health staff 'put patients at risk'

Stethoscope The European Commission is already reviewing the regulations

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Patients are being put at "unacceptable risk" because of EU rules governing the movement of health workers, peers say.

A House of Lords committee said the current balance between free movement of labour and safety had been skewed.

It said regulatory bodies should be able to test the language skills of all doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists and pharmacists wanting to work in the UK.

They also called for better sharing of data about the disciplinary history of staff seeking to work abroad.

The ability of health professionals - and in particular doctors - to work across the European Economic Area (EEA) has been a controversial issue in the UK in recent years.

It hit the headlines after the case of Daniel Ubani, a German locum doctor, who gave 70-year-old David Gray a fatal painkiller overdose on his first and only shift in Britain in February 2008.

Investigations found Dr Ubani had been rejected for work in Leeds because of his poor English skills, but had been allowed on an approved list by another trust.

A UK coroner recorded a verdict of unlawful killing and accused Dr Ubani of gross negligence.

Frustration

The GP was given a suspended sentence in Germany for death by negligence but has still been able to work there.

Since the case, ministers and the General Medical Council, which regulates doctors in the UK, have expressed frustration at the current situation.

The European Commission has already announced a review of the rules with firm proposals expected by the end of the year.

It is likely they will recommend a tightening of the rules, although it could take another year for the changes to be made.

Start Quote

The committee is right - the safety of patients should always come first. Like us, they believe that current EU rules are putting patients at risk and urgent changes are needed”

End Quote Niall Dickson General Medical Council

In the meantime ministers in England have placed a duty on local trusts to vet the language skills of doctors - they have had the power to do this but it was inconsistently carried out - as well as giving the GMC powers to investigate language competency where concerns are raised.

But the conclusions reached by the House of Lords social policies and consumer protection committee call for a much more radical overhaul.

The peers have suggested that an alert system be set up to ensure that information about disciplinary procedures are shared between regulators from different countries.

They also want regulators to be given the power to vet language skills - as they have for doctors from outside the EEA - while the qualifications and skills recognised as being appropriate need to be updated to ensure staff are trained to the appropriate standards.

Committee chairwoman Baroness Young said: "It is absolutely unacceptable that current EU rules put patients at risk. The EU is failing our patients.

"We recognise that mobility can bring significant benefits, but we have to make sure that this is not at the expense of patients' health, care and confidence."

The report has been warmly welcomed by regulators, ministers and campaigners in the UK.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the General Medical Council, said: 'The committee is right - the safety of patients should always come first. Like us, they believe that current EU rules are putting patients at risk and urgent changes are needed."

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley: 'We are able to apply language tests to European doctors for employment purposes on the NHS'

And Peter Walsh, chief executive of Action Against Medical Accidents, described the current arrangements as "crazy".

"Patient safety must be put before political correctness."

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley added: "It's completely unacceptable for doctors to work in the NHS if they can't speak English properly."

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