Put this date in your diarrhoea

For the last several days I’ve had to have lunch in town, which – and I realise I’m not being original here – has involved communicating my order to a waitress. Each has been easy on the eye and eager to serve.

One slight problem though has diminished the pleasure I took in their company: they couldn’t often understand my order in every detail, nor provide lucid explanations whenever the menu wasn’t explicit enough.

I don’t know if it’s still legal to describe non-British EU ‘citizens’ as foreigners, but I’ll have to risk censure by telling you that’s what they were. That, by itself, doesn’t present a problem, especially to someone who himself wasn’t born where he lives.

However, surely it’s not unreasonable to expect that those serving the public ought to know enough English to communicate with the public they serve. Alas, even such an eminently reasonable expectation is routinely frustrated nowadays.

No real harm was done. I didn’t go hungry and, even though some condiments were put on the food rather than on the side as I had requested, I didn’t gag. Moreover, I had to tell myself not to be a grumpy old man and just go with the flow – the girls have to make a living, and a waitress doesn’t have to be an accomplished linguist to collect her tip.

However, the situation becomes more fraught when a linguistically challenged person, rather than serving hungry people in restaurants, treats ill people in hospitals.

As any doctor will tell you, talking to a patient is often as essential a diagnostic and therapeutic tool as any test. One word misunderstood by either party in such an interview can have dire, possibly lethal, consequences.

That’s why doctors must have perfect command of English, and one would think such a skill would be as important to a physician as the knowledge that we drive on the left would be to a bus driver.

Not so, according to Dr Tomaz Frylewicz.

The good doctor graced the NHS with his arrival from Krakow in 2006 and in the intervening nine years has failed an English test three times. Such ineptitude puts patients at risk, ruled a tribunal, which then suspended Dr Frylewicz until his English improves.

Looking at it from the doctor’s perspective, the tests have been coming thick and fast: three of them in the last year. That means Dr Frylewicz had been working in the NHS for eight years without ever being asked to sit such an exam.

Considering that his colleagues testified they were never sure he understood either them or, more critical, his patients, this strikes me as negligent.

In his defence Dr Frylewitcz explained that “this exam does not give the true knowledge of English.” Well, I don’t know how to explain this to you, doctor, so that you might understand, but an exam’s function is to test knowledge, not to give it. See the problem?

The reason the General Medical Council was so tardy in giving Dr Frylewicz linguistic skills by testing them is that – I’ll italicise this for your benefit – until last year testing doctors from within the EU had been against the law.

Allow me to rephrase. Until 2014 doctors were able to treat patients even when proper communication between the two parties was impossible. I’ll let you consider the deadly possibilities; my own imagination doesn’t go so far.

But wait a minute, perhaps an injustice has been done. Perhaps Dr Frylewicz’s English is perfectly adequate after all.

He certainly thinks so: “Every day to my home the Wall Street Journal comes.” Presumably he then the Wall Street Journal reads and it understands. But he really ought to have allowed a native speaker to make statements in his defence, for Dr Frylewicz digs the hole deeper with every word he utters.

Even assuming that he can follow stock market quotations with commendable fluency, this task taxes one’s proficiency in English much less than having to have detailed conversations with patients, whose own language may often break through the limits set by elementary textbooks.

For example, there are at least 50 major dialects spoken on the British Isles, and God only knows how many minor ones. Some of these dialects are difficult even for native speakers to understand, as anyone who has ever heard Sir Alex Ferguson speak will testify.

All such speech patterns are amply represented among NHS patients, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the problem. Even if a patient speaks textbook English (who does these days?), his speech may still be full of nuances that’ll go right by a foreigner – even one capable of reading that the FTSE 100 is two points down this morning.

Still Dr Frylewicz thinks he has been hard done by. He doesn’t like the new empowerment given to the GMC: “In my opinion it is a bad law, an anti-freedom law.”

I agree. Dr Frylewitcz’s freedom to cut off the wrong leg has been infringed – and a good job too. But then I understand what he means (I think). Any law contravening an EU law is by definition bad. Who does Britain think she is, regulating her own medical practice?

Frau Merkel is going to hear about this.


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