A European Parliament vote on a package of measures to update rules on nurses who move from one European country to another, has been labeled a positive move forward, by nurses' leaders.
Members of the European Parliament Internal Market committee voted this week in favour of allowing regulatory bodies in Member States (for example, the General Medical Council) to check health professionals' ability to speak the language of the country they are going to, and test them if necessary.
This means nurses would have to prove they can speak English if they want to practise in the UK.
It also voted in favour of a warning system that would allow Member States to warn each other within 48 hours if they strike off a nurse or other health professional for incompetence, misbehaviour or fraud.
The NHS European Office, together with other health organisations in the UK, has lobbied to try to secure changes to the European Commission's proposals to update the Directive on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications. Some of the proposals put forward for the directive threatened to weaken safeguards aimed at preventing incompetent or dangerous health professionals from practising.
The package of measures will be voted upon by the full European Parliament later this year, and approved by Member States in the European Council before it can become law. There are still many opportunities to change the proposals, so there will be no let-up in raising awareness of the issues affecting the NHS as long as improvements can be made.
The NHS European Office still has concerns over some of the proposals, for example the deadlines for issuing and validating the portable 'professional card' to help professionals transfer easily from one country to another. It says NHS organisations must be confident that European staff who come to work in the NHS have been properly checked and that their qualifications, experience and other credentials are up to date and meet minimum standards.
Elisabetta Zanon, director of the NHS European Office, said: 'The NHS needs to ensure the right checks and balances are in place to protect patients from dangerous care from health professionals.
'We have lobbied hard to influence MEPs and to ensure that patients are safeguarded.
'We need health professionals to be able to move around Europe freely and use their expertise in other countries, but patient safety must be our first priority. We are pleased with the progress that has been made and will continue to raise awareness of the remaining areas of concern.'
Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, added: 'There is much to be pleased about in today's vote. A number of the measures echo what the RCN has called for and will improve patient safety across the EU.
'We are encouraged by the recommendation to allow regulators to introduce language checks on EU health professionals. This will ensure that health staff can communicate with their colleagues and patients. Another positive is the alert system, which will prevent health professionals prohibited from practicing in one member state from working in another.
'However, we're disappointed to not see greater support for a minimum 12 years' general education requirement before commencing nursing studies. This would have brought member countries in line with the UK.
'We fully support the right for nurses to use their skills around the world, but patient safety must be the top priority. We hope today's vote will be a good starting point to ensure all patients receive the same high quality care.'