Being unable to communicate effectively can have negative consequences both in business and personally, and sometimes it can even have fatal results.
That was certainly the case in 2008 when Dr Daniel Ubani gave his patient a lethal overdose of diamorphine after failing to properly understand the usage instructions.
But recent changes to the rules governing foreign doctors mean those medics whose English is not up to scratch will no longer be allowed to practice in the UK.
Medical leaders have hailed the move, which will see the General Medical Council (GMC) check a foreign doctor’s language skills before he or she is allowed to work with patients.
The new system of checks are part of plans agreed by EU ministers that will require doctors, nurses and other health professionals moving from Europe to meet new patient safety requirements.
The safeguards include the introduction of a new alert system that will require health regulators from European countries to warn each other within three days when a medic has been removed from a national register or has restrictions imposed on their practice, a GMC spokesman said.
The rules have been agreed by all the member states, but how the new directives are enforced will be down to each nation.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: “This is a good day for patients. With our partners in Europe we have worked hard to bring about these changes which will close a serious gap in our regulatory defences.
“Alongside changes to current UK law in 2014, they will give us the ability to check the language skills of doctors coming to work here from Europe. The new alert system is also a big step forward. If we are to protect patients, free movement of professionals must be accompanied by free movement of information.”
German doctor Ubani, injected David Gray, from Cambridgeshire, with 10 times the recommended dose of diamorphine.
He was able to register to work in the UK without passing a language test because he was a German citizen. The previous rules only required the GMC to test doctors’ standard of English if they arrived from outside Europe.
The new safeguards will now see similar tests for doctors within the European economic area.
There are around 27,000 European doctors on the UK medical register.
The GMC is currently running a consultation to seek views on changes which will allow it to check the language skills of doctors from the European Economic Area (EEA) when a concern is raised during the registration process. This is running alongside the Department of Health’s consultation on changes to the UK Medical Act in line with the current European directive, with changes expected in 2014. The GMC’s consultation will run until 10 December 2013.
The importance of getting language right in a health setting is obvious. Miscommunication can not only lead to diagnosis errors, it can drive a wedge between patient and health provider. In a similar way, businesses also need to make sure their lines of communication are strong and clear, as customer service can feel almost as pressing as health needs to a consumer. And if these needs are not met, most customers will vote with their feet and find a provider who can understand better.