The shortage of doctors in Australia is so critical that the authorities are resisting compulsory checks on medicos trained overseas lest they fail the test, a study has revealed.
The study by Monash University in Melbourne has shown that the authorities are reluctant to ask for a compulsory assessment of doctors' credentials for fear of deterring them from coming to Australia. Bob Birrell, a co-author of the study, said overseas doctors were the mainstay of basic health services in public hospitals and 37 percent of all rural general practitioners now were overseas-trained.
Birrell told ABC Radio, "It is extraordinary in the sense that these doctors are in the frontline of medicine but have not been subjected to any systematic test of their medical knowledge or clinical skills. There is a reluctance to require any systematic test for fear that this will put off applicants and indeed that some would fail."
Scrutiny of overseas doctors has been a matter of debate.
While Indian doctor Mohammed Asif Ali was sacked from Gold Coast Hospital in Queensland recently for exaggerating his medical employment history, Jayant Patel, dubbed "Dr Death", has been linked to the death of 17 patients at Bundaberg Base Hospital, also in Queensland.
The immigration department approves doctors' visas, including character and security checks, and the state medical boards and health departments ensure their work histories are bona fide.
"Once a doctor has been registered, the respective medical bodies have the responsibility to train them to the required Australian Standards. So don't blame the doctors, blame the system," Hemchandra Rao, former president of the Overseas and Australian Medical Graduates Association (OAMGA), told IANS.
Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott has rejected suggestions that a large number of foreign doctors are incompetent. He told ABC Radio, "I don't think it is in any way true to say there are large numbers of incompetent doctors sneaking into Australia."
Critics say that the country would not be so dependent on foreign doctors if the government had trained more Australian medical practitioners.
There was some good news Thursday when Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop announced: "Between 2001 and 2006, there was a 46.7 percent increase for nursing students, 17.4 percent for teaching students and 63.5 percent for medical students."
Recently, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, who drew flak for cancelling Indian doctor Muhammad Haneef's work visa, told state medical boards that their overseas doctors' checks are "less than thorough employment vetting processes" and that was putting the integrity of Australia's migration programme at risk.
Haneef, who is from Bangalore, was detained and incarcerated for 26 days in July on the charge of being linked with a failed terror plot in Britain in June.
About 3,000 foreign medical graduates a year are allowed into Australia, many of them under the '457 visa' scheme.
Andrew Schwartz from the Australian Doctors Trained Overseas Association said, "There has been a significant decrease in the number of Indian doctors coming to Australia in the past few months. Application enquiries to work in Australia have dropped 70 to 80 percent."
Haneef's case is seen as one of the main reasons for this decline. So how long will it be before Indian doctors feel comfortable to come here and work again? Schwartz says: "Time will heal this one."