Foreign docs’ poor Swedish leading to errors

A doctor’s insufficient Swedish skills are being blamed for delaying the removal of a patient’s malignant melanoma by nearly two months, prompting concern among health officials about the number of doctors who don’t speak the language well enough.

“It’s increasingly the case that mistakes occur within the healthcare system because doctors from other countries can’t communicate adequately,” Karin Hedner, a supervisory doctor with the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) regional office in Malmö, told the Dagens Medicin newspaper.

Hedner’s comments come following revelations that an 88-year-old patient at the Malmö University Hospital in southern Sweden failed to understand the severity of a diagnosis delivered by his foreign-born doctor.

The doctor had tried to explain that the patient’s malignant melanoma ought to be removed as soon as possible.

But the patient misunderstood the diagnosis and instead went on an extended overseas vacation, the Sydsvenskan newspaper reports.

When the 88-year-old had a follow up visit three months later, the growth had become nearly 50 percent larger.

“It is our conclusion that if they had been able to communicate better, perhaps he could have got the patient to understand that it should have been operated on right away,” Hedner told Sydsvenskan.

Another official with the health board’s supervisory division, Per-Anders Sunesson, confirmed that doctors’ Swedish skills are an issue, adding that the agency has alerted the government about the matter.

“The problem is growing as we get more doctors from other countries,” Sunesson told Dagens Medicin.

When doctors come to Sweden from countries outside the European Union they must first take a specialized language test before they receive a licence to practice medicine in Sweden.

However, when a doctor from another EU country comes to Sweden, it is up to their Swedish employer to ensure that they have sufficiently strong language skills, often resulting to uneven checks on how well doctors speak and understand Swedish.

The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR), whose members include the local government bodies responsible for the operation of most of the country’s healthcare facilities, has now decided to look at ways of addressing the issue.

“We’re in the process of putting together a group to look at this,” said SALAR investigator Barbro Emriksdotter to Dagens Medicin.

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