NHS recruitment drive yields 700 responses from overseas doctors

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A global campaign to recruit more doctors for the National Health Service has led to 700 inquiries from around the world.

Doctors from the United States, Canada, and Australia are among those to have expressed an interest.

This week, interviews begins for 50 Spanish doctors who have applied for posts under a separate pilot scheme being run in the North-west.

New Zealand refused to allow the advertisements because it is short of doctors, and none was placed in South Africa because of a personal appeal from Nelson Mandela three years ago for Britain to stop poaching its medical staff.

The month-long campaign, which has now closed, is being seen as a success by the Department of Health and has been backed by doctors' leaders desperate for help to cope with the rising NHS workload.

But some have cautioned that the language and clinical skills of the new recruits may not be good enough to pass muster. Sir Peter Morris, president of the Royal College of Surgeons said: "Advertising round the world could yield some very good doctors. Some of my colleagues think nothing will come of it but this is very much an experiment to see if some might want to stay on. We would want to be sure about the standards of those who come over."

Professor John Lilleyman, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: "We will only be able to use these doctors' skills if their English is good and their postgraduate training has the same depth and breadth as ours."

The Government has promised to recruit 7,500 extra consultants by 2004 and to cut maximum waiting times for operations to six months by 2005.

Dr Steve Atherton, adviser on overseas recruitment to the Department of Health and medical director of the St Helens and Knowsley NHS Trust, said the aim was to recruit 500 to 1,000 consultants from abroad. The rest would be filled by junior doctors in Britain about to complete their specialist training. "It feels a bit like New Year's Eve at 7pm – you've spent a long time planning the party and then you sit there wondering if anyone is actually going to turn up," Dr Atherton told Hospital Doctor.

The biggest shortages of consultants are in the fields of psychiatry, radiology and general medicine. NHS salaries – starting at £51,000 and rising to £66,000 after four years with further discretionary points up to £87,000 – are substantially higher than in Spain and Australia, competitive with Canada, but lower than in the United States. However, American doctors in overcrowded specialties have expressed an interest in moving to Britain.

Although advertising was restricted to countries with a surfeit of doctors, applications have also come from doctors in developing countries.

Surendra Kumar, chairman of the overseas doctors association of the British Medical Association, warned about the standards of those applying. He said the NHS had such a poor reputation for exploiting staff from developing countries that working in Britain was no longer seen as attractive.

"I know from speaking to colleagues and friends working in India that the sort of experienced doctors we need would not be interested in working in the UK."