Senior members of Australia’s medical community have urged the Federal Government to stop giving visas to overseas-trained doctors.
They believe that while the skills shortage in regional and remote Australia continues, the migration program intended to address it has failed.
Ewen McPhee is a GP in the central Queensland town of Emerald and president of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia.
“Is there a skills shortage and have we fixed it? Well, the answer is yes, there is a shortage, but no, we haven’t fixed it,” he said.
“The problem is that the workforce solutions we have in place now simply aren’t working.”
According to a report in The Australian, the Department of Health shares these concerns and has made a formal submission for changes to the nation’s immigration rules.
The newspaper said documents released under Freedom of Information showed the department agreed that drastic changes were needed to stop overseas-trained doctors getting visas.
In a formal submission, it asked for all medical occupations to be removed from what is known as the Skilled Occupation List.
The list identifies occupations the Government thinks would benefit from overseas workers.
Dr McPhee argued the health system was not one of them.
“You need to be really training doctors explicitly to give them the skills to live and work in the bush and we’re simply not doing that for international medical graduates,” he said.
“The issue is that often international medical graduates are, I could probably almost use the word forced to go out into rural and remote areas where they may not be culturally prepared to work, they certainly are not supported to work.
“They’re not given the mentorship and often the skills, training that they need to survive and thrive in those country areas and often they’re given the task of having to pass a very expensive exam, and as soon as they pass that exam they leave and move to areas where they feel much more secure and supported.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman told the ABC: “As the number of Australian-trained doctors has increased substantially over the past decade, it’s timely to consider whether existing immigration markers are still appropriate for our health workforce needs.
“The Department’s submission on the skills list reflects that position.”
Bringing doctors from overseas an ‘ethical dilemma’
Dr McPhee also blamed medical centres that were bringing international doctors into the country simply to boost their profit margins, not to address the skills shortage.
“It’s not fair to rural communities which see a constant revolving door of doctors moving in and out,” he said.
President of the Australian Medical Association Dr Michael Gannon agreed the system was broken.
“Often what we’re doing is filling up corporate clinics in the middle of our cities, now that’s not the intention of these regulations,” he said.
Dr Gannon said bringing in doctors from developing nations in particular raised an ethical question.
“If an Australian town of people takes a doctor from South Africa, they were looking after 14,000 people, who then take a doctor from Uganda who might look after 24,000 people,” he said.
Universities ‘need to target rural students’
Dr McPhee said making sure rural and remote Australia had the doctors it needed required a dedicated rethink from governments, who continue to favour capital cities for major training hospitals.
“While we have our major training tertiary hospitals as the only centres of excellence in major city centres, we can hardly expect the confidence of clinicians to train in rural and regional provincial centres to exist,” he said.
He said universities could do a better job of accepting students more inclined to live in the regions.
“It’s a real challenge, the whole issue of selection is a vexed one,” Dr McPhee said.
“Certainly where universities do interviews, they very much weight them towards rural intent and rural background and that certainly has demonstrated that if you do that you can improve the retention and resilience of people shifting back into rural communities.”