In a letter sent to Health Minister Mary Harney on March 8, which has yet to receive a response, Medical Council of Ireland president Prof Kieran Murphy said the situation is risking patient safety and could lead to health service mistakes.
Prof Murphy, who is also a member of the group’s standards in practice and professional development committee, said doctors from outside the EU must pass an Academic International English Language Test before registering to work in Ireland.
However, due to EU freedom of movement rules, physicians from continental and eastern Europe do not need to pass language proficiency exams to work here. And the Medical Council is not allowed to test their clinical skills to ensure they meet Irish health service standards.
“I am writing to formally express the Council’s grave concerns regarding the above situation and to request the minister to address the situation as a matter of urgency,” read the letter sent to Ms Harney, published by trade publication Irish Medical Times.
Due to current restrictions, the medical watchdog can only advise employers to ensure that all doctors have a sufficient knowledge of English to work with patients and colleagues.
The issue received significant attention in Britain in June when that country’s General Medical Council struck off German doctor Daniel Ubani after a mistake he made led to the accidental death of David Gray.
Dr Ubani had previously been turned down for an NHS job because he did not have sufficient English.
While the Medical Council of Ireland does not hold specific complaints, details relating to a doctor’s inability to speak or understand English do exist for “communication” concerns.
This category, which includes rudeness and inability to work with others, saw 25 complaints last year, 40 in 2008, and 32 in 2007.
The watchdog has not overseen any fitness to practise case involving a mistake linked to a doctor’s English language proficiency since the hearings were made public in March 2009.
While the records do not identify a specific concern over the issue, Prof Murphy’s letter is supported by a number of patients who have complained over the inability of some physicians to understand the language.
In one case, which involved a SouthDoc physician in Cork city last year, a young mother who brought her one-year-old son to an out-of-hours clinic because he was suffering from asthma was recommended a dosage of steroids to help open his lungs.
After travelling to a pharmacy to get the medication she was told the dosage was at least 10 times higher than safe levels for a young child.
The woman told the Irish Examiner the pharmacist who identified the error allegedly said the dosage was high even for an adult and could have caused the child serious heart problems.