Skilled, needed – and stuck overseas

Doug Hendrie

5/02/2021 4:00:51 PM

Dozens of doctors – including GPs – have not been able to secure flights to Australia despite having a job lined up in an area of need.

Woman in mask waiting at airport
GPs are stuck overseas despite having jobs lined up in Australia.

As rural Australia cries out for doctors, a backlog of overseas-trained GPs are stuck at home.
The issue has emerged since the cap on international passengers flying into Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales was halved in January.
Prior to this change, doctor advocates say, airlines found it easier to apply for exemptions to the cap for essential medical personnel.
RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements has called for immediate support and streamlined procedures for these doctors who have run afoul of travel restrictions.
‘Large numbers of international medical graduates are waiting,’ he told newsGP. ‘They’re approved and ready to come, but they’re waiting for a travel slot.’  
Prominent WA GP Dr April Armstrong has been working on behalf of these doctors since April last year in a bid to increase the numbers of much-needed GPs in rural areas.
‘There are at least 30 GPs I know of, mainly in the UK and some in the US and Middle East, too,’ she told newsGP.
Dr Armstrong said the process was much easier last year, with airlines helping to identify passengers who are medical staff and support them to travel either under the cap or to apply to for exemptions.
‘Initially, these exemptions were approved and everything ran smoothly until they halved the cap,’ she said.
‘Since then, no cap exemptions have been approved. Airlines have worked really hard to get doctors here under the existing cap, but people are still being cancelled.’  
Dr Armstrong has lobbied a number of parliamentarians to push for exemptions for medical staff.
‘We are falling behind each day that the flight cap numbers do not increase. Doctors are sitting in limbo,’ she said.
One GP and their partner and family have been living in a UK hotel without an income for weeks, waiting to be approved for a flight, according to Dr Armstrong.
‘It’s an impossible life to be living. They’re all very happy to quarantine and [would be] grateful to arrive,’ she said.  
Dr Armstrong is currently the only GP at her clinic in the mining town of Kalgoorlie, with 13,000 patients on her books. She has recruited a GP trained in India, but they have not been able to make it to Australia yet, with months more waiting ahead.
‘I’m having to use telehealth GPs from Victoria and New South Wales to keep things running,’ she said. ‘I [also] had a locum due to come from Melbourne who had to cancel due to border closures.’
Jennie Bardsley is the owner of Perth-based company British Travel, which has arranged passage for dozens of doctors due to arrive on commercial flights in February.
Even so, there are still around 100 doctors from different specialities on her books who cannot currently get to Australia despite having jobs lined up.
‘It’s very difficult to get people here,’ she told newsGP.
‘Before August last year, it wasn’t a problem. Then they brought in travel caps, and then reduced the caps from 8000 per week to 6000 and now to 4000.’
A key issue for overseas-trained doctors is the fact they are not Australian citizens or permanent residents – meaning they are not eligible for the priority list of Australians kept by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
And while they can apply for an exemption to the passenger caps as people with critical skills, Ms Bardsley says this approach is now much harder.
‘It doesn’t mean you can necessarily travel more easily. Just because you’ve got the visa doesn’t mean you can [automatically] come in above the caps,’ she said.
Passenger caps were introduced last year as a way of managing demand on quarantine facilities. At least 40,000 Australians on a priority list are still stranded overseas.
newsGP sought comment from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, which oversees the passenger caps.
A Department of Health spokesperson told newsGP that visa applications are being prioritised for people on the list of skilled occupations, which includes GPs, nurses and medical practitioners. 
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Dr Kiera Jane Berry   9/02/2021 7:45:23 AM

And meanwhile in Australia, hundreds of IMG’s are waiting to do AMC exams so we can get onto the AGPT training program!!!
The RACGP could consider changing the requirements as long as the AMC exams cannot be taken. I could start GP training right now, I have 2 years of hospital experience in Australia and 2 years in Germany, but I don’t qualify because my amc exams have been postponed since May 2020 😡

Dr Shakeel Kacmarsky   9/02/2021 11:29:31 AM

My impression is that WA is particularly bad for this . Sadly it is not helped by a small proportion of practice owners who ‘ juggle’ viable candidates like skittles (leaving some simply hanging at the other end of the world) according to perceived availability or cost to practice ( IMG paid less than RACGP essentially and more ‘ tied’ to practice due to visa etc) They then are stumped because they cant get them into Australia irrespective of the perceived importance of the individual owner or practice. I had no issues at all in January getting to a post in South Australia as a returning Aus/ UK GP which was either lucky or just due to a more enlightened and humane approach than displayed in WA.

Dr Lorin Philip Monck   9/02/2021 11:07:11 PM

Irrespective of a persons skills or trade, with limited passenger caps it seems logical
and fair that Australian citizens or permanent residents are given some priority.
I would consider that General practice shortages should be approached by both developing capacity through Australian graduates, and encouraging medical colleagues from outside Australia to practice in Australia within guidelines of supervision and required exams