New rules to help check foreign doctors' English language skills are a "huge step forward for patient safety", the Health Minister has said.
Previously EU doctors could practise in the UK without having to pass a language test, while those from outside Europe could be made to prove their grasp of English..
The new powers mean the General Medical Council can order a language test if "serious concerns" are raised about a doctor.
Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said: "For the first time ever, we have a full system of checks in place to prevent doctors working in the NHS who do not have the necessary knowledge of English from treating patients."
"This is a huge step forward for patient safety. I am pleased to have played my part in making this happen," he added.
Dr Clare Gerada, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, has warned that family doctors routinely see up to 60 patients in a single day due to a "chronic shortfall" of GPs and funding:
Our figures should send out a warning to Government and the rest of the NHS that we will soon have a catastrophe on our hands if urgent action is not taken to reverse the decline in funding for general practice and provide GPs with an appropriate amount to spend on each patient every year ...
GPs are keen to do more for their patients but we are heaving under the pressure of ever increasing workloads and diminishing resources, including a chronic shortfall of GPs.
Some of us are routinely working 11-hour days with up to 60 patient contacts in a single day and this is not safe or sustainable, for patients or GPs. We simply cannot do more without the funding and resources to back it up.
Health minister Dan Poulter said while overseas doctors make a "hugely valuable contribution to the NHS" it is "clear" that "tougher checks" on English language skills are needed. He added:
We have already strengthened the way doctors' language skills are checked at a local level. These new powers are an important step in making the system even stronger by allowing the GMC to carry out checks on a national level before they start work in the UK and prevent doctors who do not have the necessary knowledge of English from treating patients.
Niall Dickson, chief executive of the General Medical Council, said:
This is an important move that will help protect patients and will be welcomed across the country.
The move to enpower the General Medical Council's English language testing comes after a series of high-profile cases, including Dr Daniel Ubani, who killed a patient in 2008 after confusing the names of two drugs.
The new powers for the GMC could see inspectors:
checking for language competency when looking at qualifications
judging how long doctors have been registered in other countries
examining the type of experience the doctors possess
assessing any doctor if language concerns arise during a fitness-to-practise investigation
Red flags may include doctors turning up with interpreters, poor English in interviews or poor written English on application forms. Any worries could then prompt full testing of the doctor's language skills.