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NHS: Medical Competence and Skill

Volume 758: debated on Wednesday 7 January 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to maintain and, where necessary, improve the level of medical competence and skill in the National Health Service.

My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to introduce this debate. I thank in advance all those Peers who will speak in the debate for the significant contributions that they will make from their respective points of view.

The NHS is one of our finest achievements. No pain goes unrelieved for lack of money. Its staff are dedicated, driven by a sense of calling, and their level of competence is second to none in the world. However, no institution is perfect and it can always do with change. Every institution builds up its own structural biases, and every profession has a tendency to build up a certain ethos, corporate mentality and collective spirit, and tends to do things in a certain way that is useful but has limitations. I suggest that this is just as true of the NHS. That is why several changes have been made over the years, particularly during the last 25 years. I do not care for the changes that are largely managerial and which are concerned to centralise the system and transfer power from doctors to managers. But I greatly welcome the changes that are of a medical nature; for example, appraisal and revalidation of GPs, and the collection and publication of surgeons’ death figures. These changes have been or will be of great benefit to the patients and to the medical profession. It is in the spirit of these changes that I wish to frame this debate and ask two questions.

My first question has to do with the general nature of medical competence in the NHS. How can we sustain the current level of medical competence and skill in the NHS? There is a general feeling that it is being threatened by recent structural and managerial changes. We need to address that concern. Secondly, there is a general impression among the public, the professional staff and the managers that errors of judgment occur in the NHS, and that there are pockets of incompetence that need to be carefully identified and addressed. We obviously need to see whether there is any truth in this impression and deal with it. Sometimes it is denied altogether: that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the level of medical competence in the NHS. That is not true. A report by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman on 26 November 2014 says that,

“poor communication, errors in diagnosis … and poor treatment”,

top the list of hospital complaints investigated by the ombudsman, Julie Mellor. She upheld just under half of those complaints. Statistical surveys in Australia, the United States, Canada and elsewhere have highlighted what is sometimes called substandard surgical performance. These things occur in those countries and I see no reason to believe that, much as we are better than many of those countries, some of these things do not occur here from time to time.

I was recently reading a wonderful article by the Honourable Geoffrey Davies of the Australasian College of Surgeons in the recent issue of the ANZ Journal of Surgery, in which he talks of an unacceptable level of errors resulting from inadequate competence. In our country, more than 12 surgical specialties collect and publish data on surgeons’ death rates. They show variations and some cause for concern. In all these cases, the concentration is unfortunately on the surgeons. Their errors are easy to identify and difficult to forgive. I suggest that we also look at non-surgical consultants, including physicians and GPs—indeed, the entire medical profession—to ensure that they are of the highest level of competence, for which we are justly famous and for which the medical profession has justly deserved a high reputation.

Medical competence is not about negligence—we know how to take care of that—and nor is it about professional conduct or misconduct. It is about medical judgment: that is, correct diagnosis and correct treatment. It depends not just on the kind of medical degree that one has acquired but on one’s experience and training, on keeping abreast of one’s subject, on giving enough time and attention to the patient, on a sense of accountability for the consequences of one’s diagnosis and treatment, on constant feedback from the patient and so on. Given that these are some of the preconditions of medical competence and the wider feeling that I talked about earlier, I suggest that our distinguished medical professional might like to consider five suggestions. I make them in a tentative spirit, not being a doctor myself.

First, as I said, our surgeons have introduced the practice of collecting and publishing death figures. I suggest that, with suitable modification, the same sort of practice needs to be introduced for consultant physicians. They currently have no means of knowing how the patient responded to the treatment that they prescribed. They are in no position to learn from positive and negative experiences. For example, if a patient goes to see a consultant, a particular medicine is prescribed and if it does not work, the consultant will not know this. The GP picks up the pieces. If the GP decides to refer the patient to the consultant, the consultant may not be the same one that the patient saw in the first instance. It is therefore very important that there should be a measure of continuity between the consultant and the patient. This could be ensured either by the GP informing the consultant as to what his prescribed medicine has done to the patient or, as happens in some countries, through the patient being in contact with the consultant on a regular basis or when the medication does not work as he was promised it would.

Secondly, consultants and GPs are subjected to sometimes unreasonable targets; hence, they are unable to spend as much time with patients as they would like, or as is necessary. This leads to errors of judgment, some of which are very serious. Steps need to be taken to avoid such situations. Targets are important, but should not be unrealistic or at the cost of the quality of care.

Thirdly, GPs are at the centre of the NHS. It is not a secret that patients sometimes avoid certain partners in a practice, even when that involves considerable waiting. There are many reasons for this. One has to do with suspicion of a lack of full clinical competence on the part of certain partners in the practice. It is in the interest of the GPs and the patients that the appraisal system that we have introduced should be made robust. Inadequate GPs should not be covered by an otherwise excellent practice.

The criteria of patient satisfaction should be more carefully defined and include not just “how much time did the doctor give you” or whatever but such questions as how many visits she had to undertake before her complaint was diagnosed or how often her medicine was changed before she felt better. Cases of whistleblowing among GPs and consultants should be viewed more charitably than at present. Whistleblowing is a public service and sometimes a compulsion of one’s conscience. Hence, its occasional excesses or misuse should be condoned or dealt with lightly. If even 1% of our more than 60,000 GPs systematically make a mistake, the extent of harm done to patients is quite considerable. That is also true of consultants. In so far as whistle- blowing diminishes this danger, there is every reason to welcome it.

Fourthly, some cases of incompetence have been identified in relation to doctors who have been engaged by medical companies, on whose resources the hospitals rely. These medical companies need to be monitored and watched more closely.

Fifthly, young doctors sometimes do not have enough clinical experience because of the EU working time directive. The directive is necessary because it protects patients against tired and overstretched doctors. It also allows doctors to learn their craft under ideal conditions. However, training is also important and we therefore need to increase the training period for GPs.

To sum up, I salute the professionalism, idealism and dedication of the medical profession in the NHS. In this debate, I have been concerned to ensure that nothing is done to tarnish the richly deserved reputation of the medical profession, whether it is done by overbearing managers, by target-obsessed civil servants or by a complacent and sometimes defensive profession.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for securing this debate. I will venture to speak on a subject which has some relevance to its title and to the noble Lord’s speech—that is, the problem of English language testing for health professionals from the EEA working in the United Kingdom. I speak with particular reference to nurses, with whom I have some familiarity, but my remarks should apply also to dentists and pharmacists. I know that other branches of healthcare are in the pipeline for similar consideration.

I am sure your Lordships’ experience of nurses in the NHS from the EEA is overwhelmingly one of courtesy, competence and compassion. Nevertheless, I am sure they will also have had instances of language difficulties over health workers’ command of English. The background to this problem is the mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive of 2005, which covers the mutual recognition of professional qualifications within the EEA. As originally promulgated, this contained the requirement that registration in the respective countries should be done before any testing for English language capability, the argument being that imposing language tests before regulation inhibited one of the EU’s basic concepts, the free movement of professionals within the Community.

This gives no problems with professions such as surveyors, architects or engineers. However, healthcare is in a category of its own because there is the additional consideration of patient safety, and this has caused considerable problems for the regulating bodies. For instance, the Nursing and Midwifery Council has been obliged first to register candidates without being able to assess their English language proficiency. Control over its members tends to be lost, or at best diminished. A fully registered nurse, probably in employment, is not going to take lightly to being told to go back to school to improve his or her English. Indeed, the onus for language competency currently rests with employers, a far from satisfactory position. This has been the potential scenario for disasters waiting to happen. We are fortunate that there have been no serious ones. However, as a journalist has pointed out, the difference between a milligram and a microgram can be a coffin.

Over the past few years the Department of Health and its associates in the three devolved Administrations have been involved with the Commission in addressing this problem. Fortunately, a lead was given by the GMC, which last year achieved a very satisfactory outcome in respect of doctors. If we turn to the other branches of healthcare, in November 2014 the department and its counterparts in the devolved Administrations issued a four-country-wide paper for consultation, the outcome of which has been a draft Order in Council which, I understand, will be due for debate in both Houses in the course of this Parliament. The effect of this should be that the regulating bodies will have the powers to delay registration of a candidate from the EEA if they are not satisfied with his or her language competence. This development should rectify a serious defect in the freedom of movement legislation, and I congratulate my honourable friend Dr Dan Poulter and his colleagues in his department and the other devolved Administrations on their diligence in achieving this potentially favourable outcome.

This may appear to outsiders to be a minor procedural adjustment. I suggest, however, that it is in fact of great significance. Not only should it be a step towards reducing accidents caused by poor language communication but, of no less importance, it will enhance the standing and credibility of the respective regulators—the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the General Dental Council, the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland—in giving them greater control over their members in ensuring that those from the EEA go into the employment market with the necessary competence in English.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for introducing this Question for Short Debate this evening.

I encounter almost daily cases where people with ME/CFS and others with medically unexplained physical symptoms, known as MUPS, are treated abominably by members of supposedly caring professions. For example—and it is by no means an isolated example—a young man of 17 had problems with tolerating foods since he was a small baby. Standard tests could provide no clear reason. By the time he was 16 he was diagnosed by consultant paediatricians at both St Thomas’ and Great Ormond Street hospitals as being extremely reactive to almost all foods and was restricted to a prescribed liquid diet, as none of the consultants had any other resolution. Eventually he was admitted to an environmental medicine polyclinic, where I am also treated, where he has been treated with low-dose immunotherapy and nutritional supplementation. Over a period of a few months, from being able to tolerate no foods he is now eating 33 different foods with few problems.

On his 17th birthday, he went out with some friends for a meal and during that night he developed very severe abdominal pain and, after his GP had refused to visit, his mother managed to get him to the polyclinic. There acute appendicitis was diagnosed and immediate admission to his local hospital in Oxford was recommended. The paediatric consultant’s first response was to ask, “What has the mother of this boy done now?”. On arrival at the hospital the consultant informed the mother that he knew that nothing was wrong with the boy but he would keep him for observation. He scheduled a scan and then went home for the weekend. The boy was left screaming and in acute pain for a further 24 hours, without pain relief or other medication. By the time he was operated on, his appendix had perforated, making treatment much more complex than necessary.

To this day, despite all the evidence of the extremity of his reactions to foods and the failure of our two flagship hospitals to treat this young man’s condition, his Oxford consultant insists that there is nothing wrong with him, that he should stop the polyclinic treatment and that he should eat a normal diet, apparently because standard allergy tests do not provide confirmation. This results in great stress and distress to the boy and his mother.

In fact, substantive evidence in numerous publications proves that the safety and efficacy of immunological changes after treatment with oral immunotherapy for cow’s milk allergy, nut allergy, allergic rhinitis, wheat desensitisation and other specific foods and chemicals is well recognised. The treatments are validated and are neither experimental nor complementary medicine.

I have long wondered why there should be such particularly unreasonable treatment for people with MUPS and I have come to several conclusions. Medicine is supposed to be a very rewarding profession, whether the practitioner is a doctor, nurse or ancillary worker. The patient consults, the doctor diagnoses and prescribes and the patient gets better or at least no worse. On the occasions when the patient’s condition deteriorates and he or she dies, it is usually because the illness is well understood and this is part of a normal process. This is clearly not the case with MUPS. Modern doctors are highly reliant on technology. Test reports taken at face value can dominate the diagnostic process without taking into account factors such as clinical presentation and history and the possibility of false positive or negative results. Additionally, medical practice has become a cost-benefit calculation, with treatments either enforced or rejected on this basis rather than on patient need. I have the distinct impression that, because some doctors and other medical practitioners fail to understand some disease processes, they grow impatient, even intolerant, when their patient fails to respond and then they blame the patient.

The skills that medical practitioners acquire during training are essential to good practice for the rest of their working lives. Unfortunately, the natural scientific curiosity of the profession seems to be stifled in the course of their training. There are still far too many medical professionals who hold that MUPS are “all in the mind” and that patients simply need to pull themselves together, perhaps with the help of a little cognitive behavioural therapy. Somehow, current research findings are not filtering down to doctors who deal with patients.

Are the time constraints on appointments and the dependence on technology reducing a doctor’s ability to listen and to communicate effectively? Is it because GPs and consultants work such long hours that they have neither the time nor the energy to do their own research on problems concerning chronically ill patients? Is it because complex investigations cost money and initial investigations come back as being within normal ranges that the current view is that further tests would not be cost effective? Or is it because doctors have become so demoralised that they can see no reason to go the extra mile on behalf of their patients?

The NHS is excellent for acute management of illness because clear guidelines are usually followed assiduously by all staff. Chronic complex conditions are problematic because clinicians seem to deal with only one symptom at a time. Specialisation means that patients with ME/CFS are rarely looked at holistically. I have heard of one doctor’s surgery with a notice on the door which reads, “One complaint at a time”. The trouble is that frequently it is the combination of symptoms which will point to a clear diagnosis.

I have confined my speech to one aspect of competence and skill, one which falls far short of the excellence that should be the norm. I am interested to hear how the Minister proposes to improve the position for some 250,000 patients with ME/CFS and the many more who have other medically unexplained symptoms.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for giving me an opportunity to say things that I never thought I would say. In my family, we have had many doctors but we did not do being ill. We were brought up to believe that you suffered and you lived. However, one day, we had an incident at home when I learnt about NHS 111. I dialled 111 and, in no time at all, a member of the family was advised. I went off to my first experience of A&E, which lasted for only four and half hours, and I learnt quite a lot.

Another day, to my horror, I was standing here speaking when I suddenly felt rather faint. When I went out, I nearly passed out, and when I got to my office in Millbank, the word was out and a paramedic was there. He found that he was not competent to look after me properly and, before I knew it, an ambulance arrived and then another. I was tested and overwhelmed with the overcompetence of the issue.

After that I thought that perhaps I had better register with the NHS, which was rather a pleasant exercise. The local operation was rather busy, but it thought that it might be able to fit me in because my wife was there. Since then, I have been extraordinarily impressed. You ring up and ask for an appointment. Usually you can get one within a day or, if it is urgent, more quickly. You walk there and wait for 10 minutes. You are seen for 10 minutes, and a diagnosis takes place. The e-mails go off and you are told which clinic or wherever you should go for the next stage. Then you walk down the road to the pharmacy to get your prescription, with the dog in tow.

I had not realised the significance of pharmacists, who are, in a way, linked to the NHS. I interviewed a few and found to my surprise that there are 12,000 pharmacies in the United Kingdom and that a trained pharmacist spends more time in training than a doctor. Then you realise that there is a link: almost every time you consult a doctor, you end up with a prescription that you take to a pharmacist. I have spoken to several pharmacists and to their association and have realised that there could be a much closer link between them and the medical profession.

My interest in this sector is that when I was in the financial world, I dealt with some of the newer technologies, which I have mentioned on other occasions, not least the developments in the stem cell field. I did some research into the burdens of disease in Europe. To my surprise, cardio came top at 21%, followed by mental at 20%. Down the line was cancer at only 11%. Looking at the afflictions, as one would call them, you found that heart and cancer were almost equal. One of the biggest afflictions was Alzheimer’s, which I would not know how to treat.

I thought about what can be done in the high-tech or the technological field to use the latest technology. At that time, I got involved with the Germans in working with adult stem cells. We looked at the areas of operation. I did not realise that bits out people’s hips were taken out and were injected here and there. There were problems of morality. In Germany, I spoke to Professor Strauer, who had developed some of these technologies and found that there were some religious factors against it. A meeting was held, surprisingly, with the Pope, who approved that this sort of invasive surgery was reasonable.

I am talking about myself, a complete amateur. Amateur means someone who loves his subject but probably knows nothing about it. When I introduced people for stem cell treatment, I found that it was very simple: you take something out of one part of the body and inject it into another. Before you know it, you may have cured the problem of diabetic foot. I had a great friend whose wife was suffering very badly and I asked him why he did not look at the application of adult stem cell treatment, which he did. I did not see him for a while, but when I did he said that his wife was much better. Then you get one of those moving moments in life: his wife lived for another four years. I was invited to the funeral at a church in France, at which my friend thanked me for giving them a further few years together.

When you look at some of the new technologies in health, you have to say that some are to help to cure people and some are to help to keep people alive. Health is part of the social scene. It is the interrelationship between the professions, the nurses and others. The Minister has spoken today about A&E centres. I am a leading expert on them as I have spent many hours in them waiting to collect people, looking at the nationalities of people and wondering why you need four ambulances stationed outside. The A&E situation has come to dominate the British health situation overall. Can the Minister give us an idea of how many A&E patients are now being served? What are their nationalities and what are the costs? I accept that my experience with a local health operation has been very thorough. I have a code name that I can ring. I am told that I must receive an e-mail every five minutes. I am very impressed indeed, and I thank the Minister for what he has done.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for introducing this debate in his usual erudite manner. Many years ago I had the privilege of being president of the Medical Protection Society, a mutual assurance society that provides indemnity for doctors accused of negligence and misbehaviour. It provides recompense for patients who were harmed by their negligent practice. It was there that I was brought face to face with the poor behaviour of too many doctors. I was surprised and discomforted by that because until then I had done my level best to instil high standards of practice in my students, when I was dean of a medical school, and in my trainees, when I was a consultant and president of the Royal College of Physicians. To say the least, I was somewhat disappointed when I came to the Medical Protection Society.

However, I soon realised that in a busy day-to-day practice, doctors are only human. They can make occasional honest mistakes or errors of judgment. I do not for a moment excuse any of that but I thanked my lucky stars that there but for the grace of God went I. Among the millions of patients seen every day, there are bound to be occasional mistakes. Those are much more likely where doctors are rushed and under the sometimes intolerable pressure that is too common now. Much more worrying were the fortunately less common doctors whose behaviour and practice were poor, who were unfeeling and lacking in empathy or who were just substandard. They clearly have to be weeded out by one means or another. They have to be retrained or prevented from practice, which is where the General Medical Council comes in.

Something I noticed when I was training young doctors was that it was hard to distinguish between those who had qualified from different medical schools around the country. Their skills and practice seemed very similar, no matter where they had graduated. That made me realise that most of their skills and attitudes were being gained after they had qualified and that it was their postgraduate training that really mattered. Here, too, there are problems that might be relevant. Training has certainly suffered as a result of the EU working time directive and the imposition of rotas of care. Both have had an impact on continuity of care and have fragmented the learning experience of many. Some training programmes have been so structured and rigid that they have seen trainees rotate at bewildering speed from one experience to another, again interfering in that continuity of the relationship between trainee and trainer that is so important. These are not easy problems. We must, however, try to correct them. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any ideas about how we might do this.

Finally, I shall follow the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and say a few words about the EU directive under which doctors trained in other member states can come to practice in the UK without any assessment here of their competence and skills. It is only in the past couple of years that the GMC has been allowed under EU law to test the language skills of EU doctors. I fear that we are still not in a position to assess the training of a cardiologist, for example, from Greece, Spain, Holland or France or that of a neurosurgeon from Germay, Luxemburg or Belgium. They may be perfectly competent and capable, but the problem is that in the UK we have no information about what their training comprised and we are not allowed to make any assessment of it. That would interfere with EU manpower laws that encourage free movement of workers around the Community.

I tried to fill this gap several years ago when I was chairman of the Specialist Training Authority of the Medical Royal Colleges. Even though it would have been possible to do this then by a simple change in the directives that were available to us, as with many others of my efforts, I am afraid that I failed miserably. I would be very interested to hear from the Minister whether there is any hope that we may now be able to correct this anomaly.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for raising this issue and giving us an opportunity to discuss it. The NHS is a burning and most important issue in the minds of citizens. It is one that will be foremost in the minds of everyone when voting in May this year. People will vote for the political party that assures them that the NHS is safe in its hands. I declare my interest in this issue as my daughter is a GP in London and her daughter is also training in the medical field.

We all come with our different experiences—mine are positive—when we meet the NHS in the front line either with our GPs or when we end up in an NHS hospital and see the devoted, skilful and competent work of the professionals who provide humane and concerned care to cure you as soon as possible. Over the past few years, I have been a patient at a hospital. I have seen how I was diagnosed, treated and brought back to good health. The same applies to the GPs who take enormous care to treat you for your minor and major health issues. There is always enough time for you at the GP, who ultimately becomes a good friend, with care and concern for your well-being. To me, at the age of 60, the annual flu jab is a great blessing.

Very recently, I was admitted to hospital for a serious heart condition. Having been treated and discharged from the hospital, after a few days I received a letter from yet another NHS facility asking me to come to its rehab centre, which would help me build up my muscles and teach me to walk, breathe and do exercises once a week. The professionalism of the staff at this rehab facility is, for want of a better word, exceptional.

I therefore fully support the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh. The Government should not only maintain but improve the level of our NHS manpower. New scientific discoveries are coming on stream all the time. Medical professionals must be given the opportunity, time and resources constantly to update and improve their skills.

In conclusion, I shall quote from the briefing pack from the House of Lords Library dated 7 January 2015. These are positive policy statements that should be followed. First:

“No system can be 100% failsafe and where a failure does occur there needs to be a system-wide response with three key objectives: safeguarding patients; ensuring the continued provision of services to the population; and securing rapid improvements to the quality of care at the failing provider”.


“Healthcare professionals and clinical teams, their ethos, values and behaviours, will remain the first line of defence in safeguarding quality; the leadership within organisations who provide care remains ultimately responsible for the quality of care being delivered by their organisation, across all service lines”.


“Getting the right staff with the right skills to care for our patients all the time is not something that can be mandated or secured nationally. Providers and commissioners, working together in partnership, listening to their staff and patients, are responsible and will make these expectations a reality. As national organisations we pledge to play our part in securing the staffing capacity and capability you need to care for your patients”.


“Our National Health Service and public health services’ first priority must be the public that we serve. It is the commitment, professionalism and dedication of the NHS and public health staff that can make the greatest difference in providing high quality services and care for patients and their families”.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in my noble friend’s debate, and I warmly welcome it.

We would all pay tribute to the medical profession in the UK. We clearly have much of which to be proud. Equally, I agree with my noble friend that we should guard against the risk of complacency and always aim to sustain the current level of competence and try to enhance it.

I shall put to the Minister five points about training, continuing professional development, the use of simulation techniques, the adoption of new practices and medicines and the issue concerning medical negligence raised by noble friend Lord Turnberg.

I have been reading the Shape of Training report, led by Professor David Greenaway that looks at the future training requirements of doctors. It makes very sensible reading. I wonder whether the Minister can say something about the Government’s intentions on this and especially about the role of Health Education England. I draw his attention particularly to the fact that we need more doctors who are capable of providing general care in broad specialties across a range of different settings. The report states that this is being driven by a growing number of people with multiple co-morbidities, an ageing population, health inequalities and increasing patient expectations.

The Minister will recollect the work of the Royal College of Physicians on the new hospital, where it made the point that alongside specialists we need generalists who can co-ordinate care. Does the Minister think that that ought to be incorporated in the future training of our doctors? By definition, or certainly by implication, that means that greater prestige needs to be given to generalist doctors alongside the highly specialised ones.

I have also had the benefit of discussions with Dr Kieran Walsh of the BMJ in relation to medical education. The key point that he has put to me is that we need to look at inter-professional education. Healthcare professionals no longer work in silos, but in teams, but healthcare professional education still occurs mainly in silos. Again, are the Government working through Health Education England to do something about that?

I have had further discussions with Professor Stuart Carney, the dean of medical education at King’s College, concerning continuing professional development. As the Minister knows, this was introduced into the National Health Service some years ago but subsequently, of course, the revalidation of doctors was also introduced. Is he able to say something about the initial outcome of revalidation? There is a worry that both continuing professional development and revalidation can become a tick-box exercise rather than a focused approach to improving and enhancing the quality of medical practice. Perhaps he could say something about that. Again, that relates back to the Shape of Training report.

The fourth point I would like to raise is about the use of e-technology and simulation and how we can harness new technologies in the development of medical competence and skills. The Minister will know that around the country there are a number of simulation centres where doctors and other clinicians can take part in sessions that are designed to simulate clinical practice. That enables trainers to put doctors and other clinicians under pressure to see how they react when faced with multiple pressures at the same time. The problem is that it is all very voluntary at the moment. Can we look forward to a time when we can expect simulation training and regular updates to be a mandatory part of the life of doctors?

My fifth point is an issue that I have raised and discussed with the Minister on many occasions. In this country we have first-rate life sciences. We have a fantastic medical health technology and devices industry, but we know that the NHS is very slow to adopt new medicines and new techniques even though they have been proven to work. Will the Minister say a little bit about how we can encourage the NHS to move to adoption much more quickly? Can we use the new PPRS agreement on drug costs, for instance, as a way of incentivising the adoption of new medicines?

Finally, my noble friend Lord Turnberg asked about medical negligence. The Minister will know that there is an alarming rise in the payout of claims, which is probably unsustainable going forward. I cannot believe that the quality of medical practice is getting worse. It is something to do with the number of claimants and the action of the courts. I know that the medical defence organisations are very concerned, as well as the NHS Litigation Authority. In the short time that is available, is he able to say that this is something that the Government are at least keeping under review?

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, for bringing this topic to the House and for his very constructive and thoughtful speech, I would like to begin on the subject of medical education.

I am sure all noble Lords will agree that medical education in this country is of the highest quality. Indeed, our medical schools rank in the top 10 in the world. But it is not just formal education at university that contributes to maintaining and improving the skill of clinicians in the NHS, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, reminded us. High-quality postgraduate education, continuing professional development, appropriate regulation, the development and dissemination of best practice, the uptake of innovation, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, emphasised, transparency in the performance of clinicians all contribute to delivering high-quality patient care.

With regard to regulation, the General Medical Council—GMC—is required to evaluate the fitness to practise of all doctors holding a licence to practise medicine in the UK. Medical revalidation, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, commenced on 3 December 2012 and is the process by which the GMC will make an evaluation to renew a doctor’s licence. Doctors are required to revalidate every five years by participation in local schemes of appraisals which are based on the GMC’s core guidance for the medical profession, Good Medical Practice. Areas of concern will be discussed at appraisal and plans agreed to undertake further development to tackle those concerns. These remedial activities are overseen by a senior doctor to ensure an effective outcome.

Revalidation provides the reassurance that all doctors, including locums and doctors in private practice, are engaged in a process of structured appraisal and professional development that will provide the framework for continuously improving the quality of their practice. Medical revalidation will help doctors keep up to the standard expected of them by ensuring that they stay up to date with the latest techniques, technologies and research. The regular feedback from patients and colleagues will highlight areas for improvement and help a doctor to tackle any concerns about important skills such as bedside manner and maintaining trust with patients. Where concerns about doctors are more serious or attempts to tackle them are not successful, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, alluded to, a doctor may be referred to the GMC fitness-to-practise process, where a full investigation will be made that may result in sanctions or removal from the medical register.

I was very struck by the phrase used by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about the notice that she saw: “One complaint at a time”. In this context, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned the Shape of Training report. One of the key themes of Professor Sir David Greenaway’s report was the balance between specialists and generalists in the medical workforce. I can say at this point that the four UK Health Ministers will consider the draft policy proposals early this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, mentioned doctors from the EEA. We welcome the agreement to modernise the professional qualifications directive. The revised directive will now make it easier for professionals to work anywhere in the EU but we have pushed hard for more transparency in regulated professions across member states to ease the requirements on skilled professionals finding jobs in the EU. We also have a duty to play our part as a department in the furthering of the UK’s wider aims in Europe, such as freedom of movement. To that end, we are also keen to ensure that highly skilled professionals do not face unnecessary or disproportionate barriers when moving to the UK.

My noble friend Lord Bridgeman focused on language skills, which, as he said, are also a key part of ensuring that doctors in the NHS are able to care properly for and communicate with patients. That is why we made changes to the Medical Act in 2014 which allow the GMC to refuse a licence to practise in circumstances where a medical practitioner from within the EU is unable to demonstrate the necessary knowledge of English. Furthermore, an additional fitness-to-practise category of impairment was created relating to language competence. These powers help to ensure patient safety and strengthen the GMC’s ability to take fitness-to-practise action where concerns are identified. Doctors from outside the EU are already subject to systematic language checks prior to registration with the GMC. These powers ensure that only doctors with the necessary language competence are given a licence to practise in the UK.

My noble friend referred to other healthcare professionals. As he mentioned, the department has consulted on proposals to give powers to the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the General Pharmaceutical Council, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and the General Dental Council to carry out proportionate language controls for EEA applicants similar to those given to the GMC. The consultation ended on 15 December 2014 and a government response will be published shortly.

The content and standard of formal medical education and training are the responsibility of the GMC, which has the general function of promoting high standards of education and ensuring that medical students and newly qualified doctors are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential for professional practice. Medical schools also play a key role in medical education and training. They design curricula for undergraduate medical education, including the type of placements students may undertake during the course. The royal colleges also play a vital role in postgraduate specialty training. They develop postgraduate curricula, provide advice to postgraduate deaneries on the quality management of training as part of the GMC’s quality framework, and provide continuing professional development opportunities for their members.

The department set up Health Education England to deliver a better health and healthcare workforce for England. HEE does this in a number of ways: by commissioning training places to ensure delivery of the right number of medical staff for the future; working to influence the royal colleges and other professional bodies responsible for developing and approving formal training curricula to ensure they are appropriate; and ensuring professional and personal development does not end when formal training stops.

The creation of HEE and its local education and training boards has given employers a stronger voice in workforce planning so that the education and training HEE commissions better reflect their needs and, therefore, the care they deliver to patients. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, will be interested to know that in 2014 we asked HEE, through its mandate, to work with the professional bodies and regulators to seek to include specific training in curricula where needed. Examples of this training include perinatal mental health training to support the health and well-being of women and their children during pregnancy and following the birth; compulsory work-based training modules in child health in GP training; care of young people with long-term conditions; and dementia education across a number of specialty areas.

We also asked HEE to provide leadership and to work with the local education and training boards and healthcare providers to ensure that professional and personal development continues beyond the end of formal training. For example, HEE will work with other organisations to develop a bespoke training programme to allow GPs to develop a special interest in the care of young people with long-term conditions by September 2015.

Clear outcomes and guidance also provide a focus for action and improvement for clinicians. Since 2010, the Department of Health has published outcomes frameworks for public health, adult social care and the NHS, which include the main outcomes that represent the issues across health and care that matter most. Combined with this, quality standards produced by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence provide a clear description of what high-quality health and social care services look like, so that organisations can improve quality and achieve excellence.

As my noble friend Lord Selsdon rightly said, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also pointed out, innovation within the NHS is also an important driver of improving the skills and knowledge of staff. We are working with key stakeholders to remove barriers and put in place incentives to accelerate the adoption of innovation at all levels in this complex system. In 2013, England became the first country in the world to implement a universal system of academic health science networks which act as system integrators to link all parts of the healthcare landscape with industry and academia. Through this network, innovations and best practice can be spread and disseminated.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to the use of technology in particular. The development of supportive tools for clinicians is an example of how innovation can be used to deliver improved patient care. The noble Lord mentioned others and I will get back to him on the specific examples that he gave if I can get further information on them. Macmillan Cancer Support, which is part-funded by the Department of Health, has developed an electronic cancer decision tool which is currently installed in over 1,000 GP practices across the UK, with plans to make it available to all GPs as part of their standard software. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, we recognise the hard work and the vital job that GPs do, and we are doing our best to free them from excessive box-ticking so they have more time to devote to patient care.

Finally, to address one particular point made by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, the Government’s commitment to transparency has seen, among other things, consultant-level outcomes data published for 11 specialties on the My NHS website. It has also seen the Care Quality Commission publish the findings from its first comprehensive inspection of NHS GP out-of-hours services. More generally, transparency in public services and access to open data are key government policies, and I would be happy to expand on that in writing to the noble Lord.

The Government’s response to Robert Francis’s public inquiry into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust also set out our commitment to creating a culture of openness, candour, learning and accountability in an NHS which puts compassion at its heart. As noble Lords can see, the Government are undertaking a great many things to ensure that the medical competence of staff in the NHS is not only maintained, but is improved where needed.

Sitting suspended.