Getting a move on: New European rules for healthcare professionals crossing borders

Kate ling

14 / 1 / 2016 1.15pm

Kate Ling is the senior policy manager leading on workforce issues at the NHS European Office.

You’re running a busy acute unit, or a community mental health service, and one of your key staff rings in sick.  You need to get someone to cover for them tonight so you get on to the bank, or the agency. A Dutch, or Portuguese, or Romanian doctor or nurse arrives to fill the gap. Or perhaps you’re recruiting European professionals to fill staff shortages on a permanent basis. In both cases, how will you know how well-qualified they are, or how good their English is?

Mobility of professionals across borders is regulated by EU rules. These aim to make it easier for  these professionals - including doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff - to move around the EU, by ensuring that holders of certain qualifications can have those qualifications recognised and can practise their profession in an EU country other than the one in which they qualified.

The European Union has recently updated these rules and a new EU law is due to enter into force domestically on 18 January, bringing some key changes from an NHS perspective.   

Importantly, the new rules will make it easier for some health professionals who qualified in one EU country to work in another. For example, an optional professional card or electronic certificate for certain health professions will speed up procedures so that the regulating body in their Member State of origin can certify quickly and accurately that they possess the necessary qualifications, are registered and allowed to practise. This system will initially apply to general care nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists, but could be extended to other healthcare professions in due course.

It is important to emphasise that more than any other European country (apart from Luxembourg), the UK relies on healthcare staff from abroad. An increasing proportion of these come from the rest of Europe: 11 per cent of doctors on the GMC register qualified in another EU country. We simply couldn’t manage without them. So we welcome moves to help well-qualified healthcare professionals take their skills to other countries by cutting delays and red tape.

But, healthcare professions aren’t like other groups of professionals covered by the EU law, such as lawyers, estate agents or accountants.  People’s lives depend on them, so patient safety can’t be sacrificed on the altar of free movement. That is why during the passage of the European legislation, the NHS European Office campaigned relentlessly for safety checks to be included.

Our successful lobbying has resulted in stronger English language checks by regulators for European health professionals seeking professional registration in the UK – in future, registrants will have to be able to communicate well in English. The GMC has already introduced new procedures for doctors and as a result over 900 European-qualified doctors have been refused a licence to practise since June 2014.

Another very important change we successfully pushed for is the introduction of an EU-wide warning system to guard against rogue professionals entering the UK from other EU countries, and vice-versa. In future, regulatory bodies will have to alert each other within three calendar days about any professional who has been banned from practising, even temporarily, to prevent them ‘job shopping’ around Europe undetected.

The new EU law will also bring a requirement for member states to encourage continuing professional development and report on progress. This is important to ensure that the skills and competences of health professionals coming from other EU countries are up to date and keep pace with healthcare innovation. 

However, there’s no room for complacency. Employers need to be aware that professionals coming to the UK to provide services on a temporary and occasional basis – this could mean for a short period, or (for example) providing locum services on occasions over a longer period – can move countries without having to go through the usual set of requirements. With this in mind, it will be essential for employers to check whether staff they take on are registered on the temporary part of the regulator’s register and conduct all the necessary checks.

The directive also introduces some innovations that could, in the long term, significantly affect the content and standard of professional training and which the European Office will take action to influence at the right time.

In an age of global mobility we must stay ahead of the game and ensure we take advantage of the mobility of health professionals across Europe, especially in those area where we face shortages, while at the same time ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place to deliver safe and high-quality care to all our patients. This new EU law strikes a balance between these two aims and can help us respond to some of the pressing workforce challenges we currently face.

Kate is the senior policy manager leading on workforce issues at the NHS European Office, part of the NHS Confederation. Follow the organisation on Twitter @NHSConfed_EU

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