Why is the UK so dependent on foreign medical workers, and is it a problem?

Over the past few years the NHS has been under heavy scrutiny from both sides of politics, the media, and the public in general. On the whole, the system still works, but very much in the same sense that you can still paddle a leaking boat.

As we have mentioned before, the people who are least critical of the NHS are the public, who still generally tend to indicate satisfaction with the standard of treatment they receive, despite staff shortages, lack of funding, and more difficulty in obtaining access to services. Of course just because the public are not complaining does not mean the government should be complacent about the existing problems.

One of the most interesting events that occurred in relation to this was when an audience member spoke up at the BBC Question Time to point out that Jeremy Hunt was apparently misusing data from an academic report to create an incorrect impression of death statistics. In a rather roundabout way, these statistics were being used to support tightened conditions to the contracts of doctors, who as you may be already aware, recently participated in strike action over the unfairness of the conditions that are being imposed upon them.

The most important extract from the Question Time incident was the response from Nick Boles, who claimed that the government “will not save a penny” as a result of the changes made to doctors’ contracts. This raises the obvious question: if the changes are distressing to doctors and they don’t result in any savings for the government, why impose them in the first place? Whatever policy moves the government makes, there should always be some tangible benefit, or at least the anticipation thereof. If everything they do is for the right reasons, with the best of intentions, it is much easier to forgive the occasional mistake.

At least the fundamental part of what Nick Boles said was actually true. The government really won’t save a penny by tightening conditions for junior doctors, but not for the reasons they probably have in mind. The real reason is that there has been a repeating pattern that whenever the government (regardless of who is in power) shows any kind of contempt to our medical professionals, they have a tendency to seek opportunities elsewhere.

So prevalent and long-term has this pattern been, that now it is estimated that approximately one in three doctors in the UK are foreign-born. And it is this, combined with similar trends among other related professions such as nursing and midwifery, that is seeing money pouring out of the NHS at unprecedented levels, threatening to collapse the entire system.

This is all coincidentally unfolding at a time when higher education places have been reduced in medicine and nursing, so we have a situation where UK trained doctors and nurses are leaving the NHS faster than they can be replaced.

Like all countries apart from Cuba, we make up our shortfall by allowing foreign doctors, dentists and nurses to work in the UK. If we went about this in the same way that most other countries do, it would not put a great deal of strain on the NHS, but in fact there is an inefficiency in the way the process is currently administered. This stems from the proactive approach to recruitment.

The prevailing thought-form seems to be that because the shortfall is very serious, we must actively recruit people to work here rather than simply waiting for people to show up and request the opportunity to do so. As a result, the NHS spends a lot of money on recruiting agencies, and that costs a lot more than directly hiring individual applicants.

So for all these reasons the NHS is in trouble. The approach the government is taking involves cutbacks and restrictions aimed at the health care providers such as doctors and nurses, and reduction of resources in hospitals and clinics. Such an approach is not going to work well in the long term, which Nick Boles even admitted when he stated that the government wouldn’t be making any savings as a result. What would be far more effective would be generating more efficiency on the administrative side of things, but of course, if this were to be done and improvement was seen, people might then begin to question whether other administrations should be made more efficient.

It seems we can attribute our dependency on foreign workers to two main causes:

  • We are providing insufficient education opportunities to meet our needs
  • We are driving away many of our qualified workers by offering conditions that are less attractive than those offered by other countries who welcome UK trained professionals

When our doctors and nurses feel strongly enough about the conditions they work in that they actually are prepared to go on strike, it should be a clear message to government that it is the reform itself that needs reforming. Sadly it appears to be one of those situations that will have to get a lot worse before it gets better, but many people will question just how bad things will actually have to get before something positive is done. All we can say to this is don’t hold your breath while you’re waiting!

Fortunately the UK does still provide many opportunities and sometimes better working conditions than some other countries, so there are doctors, dentists, nurses, and midwives who are willing to come to the UK from other countries to work. This is, in fact, a vital part of what is keeping our health care industry functioning, because without them we’d have at least 33% less medical workers than we currently have, and what we currently have is actually inadequate to meet our needs.

The amazing thing is that there are certain political and media groups who wish to turn the tide of public sentiment against these very same people who are so important to our nation. Perhaps it is some sort of ultra-nationalism or a distorted view that they are immigrants taking jobs away from British workers. In any case, the intention is malicious, but luckily enough the public is not being fooled. With foreign medical professionals having been present in the UK for several decades, we do not have the fear and distrust that some would like to use as a political tool to further their own agendas.

To be fair, there have been some incidents involving foreign doctors and nurses that have made headlines. These stories have gotten far more attention than they otherwise would have for precisely the reason that they involve people who have been trained overseas. The predictable response from administrators like the GMC has been to attempt to make it more difficult for foreign professionals to qualify for entry. Heavy handed administration is not a luxury this nation can presently afford, although clearly we also need to be certain that the people who do come here to work are of good character and have the necessary skills to perform their duties.

Unless there is a radical change of direction by the government in terms of policy – which based on politicians’ media statements seems very unlikely – we can expect to see larger numbers of UK doctors, dentists, and nurses leaving our shores in search of more lucrative opportunities in countries that are very keen to employ them. While that’s a bit of a tragedy in some respects, it will certainly provide opportunities for qualified professionals to come to the UK for work.

The only apparent obstacle to those opportunities is the GMC and their increasingly bureaucratic system of approvals and rejections. Our clients can feel more secure and confident that they will be approved, as Hylton-Potts has over two decades of experience in helping professionals from all over the world with their applications.

Hylton-Potts can assist you with any matters related to obtaining clearance to live and work in the UK, and you are welcome to contact us any time on 020 7381 8111 or by sending an email to [email protected].

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