Why the NMC is right to introduce language testing

My task as a nurse interviewer for bank nurses and healthcare assistants is to ensure we employ staff who fulfil our criteria to perform safely and competently in a busy London NHS trust.

My scrutiny of the applicants often uncovers astonishing revelations. One example is a staff nurse, who I shall call Olga, who came over from Slovakia and appeared an excellent candidate on her application form. However she did not interview well. Slow on our written literacy and numeracy tests, her spoken English would barely equip her for serving coffee as a barista - hardly the standard required on a demanding ward.

Her nursing degree was taken in Slovakia and her experience was varied. So I was surprised to note Olga had a NMC PIN and she told me frankly she had needed to pay someone to translate her papers. To her it made perfect sense and these were submitted to the unsuspecting nursing regulator.  As a member of the EU she was entitled to work in England. But not within our trust, if I had anything to do with it.

My tactic is to throw a string of medical words to see if candidates can repeat them – meningitis, hysterectomy, vomiting, diarrhoea – all Olga could latch onto was vomitus, noting its Latin root. Not much good when the doctor speedily orders a batch of tests or relatives request information with coherence and confidence.

Her references needed examining too, as we require professionals who have worked with the candidate, preferably in the NHS. Olga’s reference – a staff nurse within our trust - turned out to be a relative. On enquiry Olga openly admitted this person had also completed the application form.  I sense big trouble if a prospective staff nurse cannot even complete her own application form!

Understandably Olga was desperate to get into nursing work  while living with the child’s father and his parents in Britain.  But not with our trust - even as an HCA.  We directed her to try the less frantic environment of a care home, although it didn’t seem especially fair to elderly residents either, with all the difficulties thrown up by such a language barrier. But my biggest concern was that she was able to get a PIN.

My next candidate had a nursing degree and vast experience from India,  spoke excellent English and had recently studied in Oxford for a master’s degree in health care, while waiting to pass his IELTS. Of course we would take him as a HCA, then grab him with both hands when he gets his PIN – he passed our written tests, my personal test and his conversational English was great.

I’m glad the NMC are attempting to address the glaring problem regarding EU applicants. No one is questioning their excellent training and experience but the role of a nurse, the different working culture of the NHS and language do need to be carefully addressed if we are to supply safe and effective staff.

Our latest EU recruit – from Romania – will be working as an HCA grade 3 with a qualified mentor until we are satisfied she can perform autonomously within our system. Our patients would not wish for less.

About the author

Irene Heywood Jones, is a freelance nurse writer