It is out of the question that EU rules would require the UK to let linguistically or medically incompetent doctors practise. In fact, the rules – recently further reinforced in agreement with the UK – expressly require Member States to prevent such people from being employed.
Yet, the Daily Mail runs yet another misleading front page article on 24 September headlined “Patients at risk from EU doctors” and alleging that “thousands of EU doctors can work in the UK without basic safety checks.” Online, the headline becomes an even greater insult to about 30 000 “EU doctors” – 10% of the total – working in the NHS: “Patients ARE at risk from thousands of EU medics.”
The consensus in the profession – as has been reported by several other newspapers, including the Times here – is that the threat to patients comes from “EU doctors” deciding to leave the UK rather than staying here to save lives and cure illness. So, while clearly patient safety should always be the top priority for healthcare organisations, it is hard to see how national newspaper front pages and online pieces impugning European doctors’ professionalism will help patients.
This is a point made in no uncertain terms in response to the Mail article by some stakeholders and medical professionals on social media.
Again, the Mail chose not to contact us for comment before its latest splash.
There are, however, some important elements to add.
First, a paragraph at the end of the Mail article itself seems to disprove the article’s whole premise that as a result of EU rules patients are somehow safer with doctors from elsewhere. It says: “GMC figures for 2011 to 2015 show that just 0.55 per cent of doctors who qualified in the UK were struck off, suspended or given a warning. This compares with 1.01 per cent from the EU and 1.1 per cent from elsewhere in the world.” In other words, disciplinary action was taken against proportionately more doctors from outside the EU than against those from inside it. None of which, of course, means that non-EU doctors are in general unsafe – these are all rather small figures over five years.
Second, the Mail article is based on comments by the General Medical Council, which has indeed expressed concerns over the system for authorising EU doctors to work in the UK, although the Department of Health and other medical bodies seem to disagree.
But the Mail quotes the GMC so selectively as to render the article misleading even in terms of that organisation’s own views. Perhaps in the knowledge that this has happened before, the GMC on this occasion chose to publish its views in full, here.
The GMC says – though the Mail does not – that: “UK patients are more protected than they used to be and the European Commission deserves credit for bringing in the fitness to practise alert mechanism, which allows regulators across Europe to share concerns about the fitness of practise of health professionals, and for giving the UK and regulators in the rest of Europe the power to require health professionals to demonstrate their ability to speak the language of their patients before granting them entry to practice.”
The GMC adds: “As the Commission has also pointed out, and we accept, it is important to remember that employers also have a responsibility to carry out thorough pre-employment checks and make sure that the doctor is qualified and competent to carry out the duties they are being given, including having the right language skills for their particular role.”
This is arguably the core of the matter. Many would take the view that the best way to root out incompetence or unsuitability for a medical role is through normal recruitment processes and interview applied equally rigorously to UK and other applicants, whether from within or outside the EU. And following that, regular monitoring of doctors’ work and of any concerns expressed by patients.
Finally, the Mail online has an accompanying article referring to an error by a European doctor leading to a patient’s death. This was clearly a tragedy which required – and seems to have led to – full investigation and action to prevent re-occurrence. But implying that it is evidence of a general threat from “EU doctors” is as misleading as it would be to take a similar case of incompetence by an individual British doctor as evidence that thousands of others hardworking and competent British practitioners pose a threat.