The British Medical Association has warned the Government that the National Health Service is becoming dangerously reliant on foreign doctors and is urging immediate action to reverse the trend.
New figures show nearly 60 per cent of doctors who registered with the General Medical Council for the first time last year had qualified outside Britain. Of the 9,458 who registered in 1997, 3,678 had trained outside Europe and 1,860 in other EU countries.
More than a quarter of the doctors working on NHS wards qualified overseas, but the proportion is far higher among the younger generation and in certain areas. Some hospitals and GP practices in East Anglia are staffed almost entirely by Dutch and German doctors.
The BMA is concerned that most of these foreign nationals do not have the right to stay permanently in this country and will leave, creating a gaping hole in NHS staff numbers.
Ministers have also been warned there will be further difficulties when 3,000 doctors from former Commonwealth countries who started in the UK in the 1950s retire shortly.
The BMA has warned the Commons health select committee that the NHS will face a staffing crisis which could put lives at risk if Britain does not become more self-reliant. The association plans to make the issue the focus of a campaign.
Dr Peter Hawker, chairman of the BMA's consultants committee, also accused the Government of bleeding poor countries dry of talent to fill a gap in the British NHS. "The policy seems to be of attracting doctors from the Third World, where they need all the qualified people they have," he said. "It seems wrong that a first world country should be draining a vital resource from poorer nations."
But ministers do not believe that the NHS can afford to train all the doctors it needs.
The Department of Health is already taking steps to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis in the NHS. Nearly 5,000 extra places at medical school will be created over the next few years to pump extra doctors into hospitals and GP surgeries.
But, as The Independent on Sunday disclosed last week, ministers are concerned about the growing number of doctors who drop out shortly after qualifying to pursue other careers. Officials calculate that more than pounds 70m a year is wasted on training doctors who never practise.
Ministers are considering forcing medical students to dedicate three years to the NHS after they qualify, or repay some of the cost of their training.