An NHS hospital has staff from a staggering 70 countries on its payroll.
The huge number of overseas nurses, cleaners and porters has forced health chiefs to send them on ten-week English courses because many do not understand basic medical phrases.
Among the terms some workers from countries such as Burma, the Philippines and Poland can’t follow are ‘nil by mouth’, ‘doing the rounds’ and ‘bleeping a doctor’.
They highlight the language problems throughout the Health Service, which critics say are putting patients’ lives at risk.
The lessons follow several ‘near-disaster’ cases, including one where a meal was delivered to a patient because a member of staff did not understand that ‘nil by mouth’ meant the man could not eat or drink.
Although all doctors from outside the EU must pass an English language test set by the General Medical Council before they can practise, the same rules do not apply for other hospital workers.
Instead, they are usually assessed on their grasp of the language at interview.
The problem has become so acute at Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals that foreign workers are being encouraged to attend ten-week, taxpayer-funded ‘English For Speakers Of Other Languages’ courses, which are run by a nearby college.
Research has found that up to a quarter of nurses–more than 60,000–working in London are foreign, with the largest number coming from the Philippines.
Hospitals in the capital that recruit a high number of overseas workers include University College Hospital, the Royal Free, and Guy’s and St Thomas’.
Manchester Royal Infirmary also has a high proportion of foreign staff from countries including India, Ghana, Spain, Germany, Iceland and the Yemen.
Jacquie Pearce-Gervis, of the Oxford Radcliffe Patients’ Forum, called last night for English lessons to be made compulsory rather than voluntary.
‘Patients and relatives have been calling for this for a long time,’ she added. ‘The language barrier can be a real issue. The most common problem is “nil by mouth”.
‘There have been cases when porters have delivered a patient food despite the fact there is a clear sign on their bed saying “nil by mouth”. Obviously this could have led to disaster but fortunately the patient has been intelligent enough to point out that they are not allowed the food.
‘I think it should be compulsory. There can often be problems with common slang terms used on the ward.’
A member of staff at the trust, who did not wish to be named, said: ‘It’s a real problem here and the language lessons can only be a good thing.
‘We have so many foreign employees here and it’s very worrying if they don’t speak English.’
There have been increasing concerns over the language skills of overseas medical staff since the death of David Gray, who was unlawfully killed by a foreign out-of-hours doctor in 2008.
The 70-year-old died after Dr Daniel Ubani, 67, a German GP whose English was so poor that he had been rejected by other health authorities, gave him a massive overdose of painkillers.
It was later revealed that although Dr Ubani had already failed an English language test in Leeds, he was still allowed to sit a different trust’s less-stringent test.
Last night, Mr Gray’s relatives called on the Government to take a tougher stance on NHS staff who could not speak English.
His son Dr Stuart Gray, 49, a GP based in Belbroughton, West Midlands, said: ‘It’s an appalling state of affairs. It is paramount that all NHS staff should be able to speak English. Our father died at the hands of a doctor who had in fact taken an English test and failed it.
‘But the GMC and the Government are unable to enforce any rules on doctors recruited from within the EU. As a result they are having to rely on Primary Care Trusts to enforce their own testing system which–as the tragedy with Dr Ubani demonstrates–isn’t working.
‘All NHS staff–be it doctors, nurses or other workers–must be able to speak English.’
Rainy Faisey, deputy director of human resources at Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals, said the courses were a way of giving staff in lower-paid jobs a chance to develop their skills.
‘As an employer, Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust offers a wide variety of training and development opportunities to its staff to help them to provide excellent care for our patients and further their career in the NHS,’ she said.
‘Like all good employers we give all staff the opportunity to develop their reading, writing and numeracy skills, whether their first language is English or not.’