Refugee doctors programme could boost GP workforce

Refugee doctors will be trained to work in general practice under a scheme set to launch this winter.

Medical centre (Photo: iStock.com/mtreasure)
Medical centre (Photo: iStock.com/mtreasure)

The first-of-its-kind programme is being set up by BMA charities chairman Dr Andrew Mowat - who hopes some of the hundreds of refugee doctors living in the UK can be encouraged to take up GP careers.

‘I am setting up a refugee doctor programme in north-east Lincolnshire and we are just about ready to go,’ Dr Mowat told GPonline. ‘It’s going to be focused particularly on primary care with most of the placements in primary care.

‘We are desperately short of GPs,’ Dr Mowat added. ‘It is my hope that by giving refugee doctors who have come to the UK a positive experience of general practice to start with, by saying: "This is the place where you were welcome", that they will come back after their training is complete and say: "Do you know what, I quite fancy going into primary care".’

GP workforce

The scheme, set up by Lincolnshire LMC, Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust and North East Lincolnshire CCG, with funding from Health Education Yorkshire & Humber - aims to recruit 10 refugee doctors this winter and then to expand. Doctors will be offered community placements and 'mentors, tutors and supporters drawn equally from primary care as from hospital care’.

The refugee scheme comes as the number of full-time equivalent GPs in England is continuing to fall, with more than 500 leaving the workforce in the three months to June 2018.

Lincolnshire is feeling the effects of the GP workforce crisis particularly keenly, Dr Mowat said, with roughly 50-70 vacancies in general practice across the county.

Hundreds of refugee doctors are in the UK, but many are currently not in work. The BMA has 640 doctors registered with its refugee doctors initiative - only around 100 of whom have gone on to work in the NHS, according to Dr Mowat.

Research commissioned by the BMA has shown that it costs almost £300,000 to train one foundation year (FY) 2 doctor in the UK - compared with just £25,000 to retrain a refugee doctor into work.

Medical training

Dr Mowat said the Lincolnshire scheme would start with doctors only, and could expand later to help other refugee health professionals into work. Existing refugee schemes were based in major cities, he added - and rurality could be a 'unique selling point' for the programme.

Dr Ekta Elston, medical director of NHS North East Lincolnshire CCG, said: 'Supporting doctors who have had to leave their own countries to continue to use their valuable skills for the benefit of people in North East Lincolnshire is a very welcome development. This will add additional clinical capacity to our local health system.'

A spokesperson for Health Education England (HEE) said: ‘A significant number of health professionals who are settled in the UK arrive with a wealth of experience, skills and knowledge and can provide the NHS workforce with quality staffing which in return benefits patient care.’

A recent report from London-based charity Building Bridges - one of the existing refugee doctor schemes - there is a ‘growing interest’ in general practice among refugee doctors even though many come from countries that ‘tend not to have well-developed primary care’.

Doctor placements

One practice that has offered placements to refugee doctors through Building Bridges is Gordon House surgery in Ealing. GP principal Dr Ravi Ramanathan told GPonline: ‘We have had two doctors so far, Aweed and Ayub, who are both from Afghanistan. They worked as healthcare assistants and note summarisers at the practice and were supervised by our senior nurses Marie and Robyn.

‘Both doctors enjoyed the attachment as they felt a sense of belonging in a large team and they significantly improved their English and understood motivations and workings of the NHS. We also found it very positive - they were well received by patients and fitted in well with the whole team.’

Fahira Mulamehic, project manager for the refugee healthcare professionals programme at Building Bridges, said: ‘The programme provides excellent value for money and inclusion of refugee healthcare professionals (RHPs) into the NHS workforce has significant benefits in meeting gaps in the NHS.’

Dr Mowat said primary care was 'ripe' for a refugee training scheme. He sketched out how the Lincolnshire scheme would work: ‘You start with language skills and help them get through the first part of their language exam and then you introduce them to clinical practice. Once their language is coming on they go on to observation placements in selected units in the hospital, which are selected by their ability to teach. And I guess we have lots of examples of similar teaching environments in primary care with, for instance, medical student placements.’

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