In the judgment of his peers, my friend, let’s call him Boris, was one of the most brilliant neurosurgeons in Houston, Texas. That was no trivial accolade, considering that at that time, some 30 years ago, Houston was to neurosurgery what Paris is to haute cuisine or Barcelona to football.
Boris’s colleague at the hospital readily, and reverentially, admitted that my friend’s skill was much superior to his own. Dr Thomson was modest, but his income wasn’t – he made well in excess of $1,000,000 a year. Boris made $22,000.
You see, Boris was from Russia and, though a genius with a scalpel in his hand, he had no linguistic ability whatsoever. Alas, the qualification exam foreign-trained doctors had to sit in America consisted of two equal parts: medicine and language. Sitting the blasted thing year after year, Boris would sail through the first part and, with the certainty of night following day, fail the second. After a few years he gave up trying and accepted his role as surgeon’s assistant, in effect a paramedic, though his million-a-year colleagues had no reservations about letting Boris operate every now and then.
One day he showed me the examination papers, with several hundred questions designed to test the prospective doctor’s English. Until then, my impression had been that the test would merely determine the doctor’s ability to understand and be understood, and quite right too. That impression turned out to be wrong. For the test covered the kind of grammatical and stylistic subtleties that would defeat most native speakers.
I recall one example. Choose the right word: He is one of those people who [a) demand, b) demands] attention. I have no doubt whatsoever that you’ve unerringly picked the right answer, which is a). But I’ll bet my $1,000,000 against your $22,000 that you know many Englishmen who wouldn’t. Now imagine several hundred similar questions together, and you’ll probably agree that only an infinitesimal minority of even native Anglophones would pass such an exam.
You may think this is going a bit too far, and I may agree with you. You may further think that, to keep foreigners out of a highly lucrative field, the test was designed partly as a sort of protectionist tariff – and I may agree with you again. But there’s no doubt that, since a doctor’s ability to communicate with patients can be a matter of life or death, this ability must be an essential part of his qualifications.
Not to test it at all before letting a doctor anywhere near a patient isn’t just stupid; it’s mad and criminal. Now that’s where the EU comes in.
Its laws mandate free movement of labour throughout the ‘zone’, a desideratum that presumably precludes any testing of a doctor’s command of English. The EU gauleiters feel so strongly about this law that they’ll defend it to the death – though naturally not their own. They’ve already defended it to the death of the pensioner David Gray, who died after wrongly receiving an industrial dose of diamorphine (heroin, in common parlance) from a Germany-trained locum.
That’s why I grasp at the rare opportunity to congratulate a minister on a job well done. Unlike his Labour predecessors, Health Secretary Andrew Lansing is prepared to introduce sanity into the asylum. According to his proposed policy, EU-trained doctors wishing to practise in the UK will be tested on their command of English. And those of the 23,000 already practising here whose command is inadequate will be struck off.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Lansing will be able to get away with trying to be sane in an insane world; I’ll have to check on the odds at my local betting shop. But if this policy goes through, we shouldn’t stop there.
For equally deadly may be nurses who, like a foreign godfather, make you an offer you can’t understand. If you’ll forgive another personal recollection, a few years ago I was in hospital, receiving some 40 drugs at the same time. In addition to intravenous diamorphine (in the right dose), one of them was a cocaine mouthwash, brought to me by a nurse twice a day in a 50 ml tub.
One of the nurses could speak very little English and, my propensity for infantile jokes enhanced by boredom, I asked her if I should drink the mouthwash in one gulp. ‘Trink?’ she asked, obviously perplexed. ‘Trink in vun gulp? Yes, trink in vun gulp.’ Had I followed that medical advice, you wouldn’t have the dubious pleasure of my company.
Perhaps, if we let our fantasies run away with us, a time will come when not just doctors, but anyone having to communicate with people in his line of work, will be expected to do so in comprehensible English. For example, I’ve met many waiters in France who can’t speak English – but have yet to meet one who can’t speak French, and that includes those who manifestly aren’t French.
Would it be too much to ask for something similar in Britain? Yes, it would, if we let the EU have its way. So Godspeed, Mr Lansing. You may be in for a rough ride.