South Africa needs foreign-qualified doctors

The Sowetan recently reported that a shortage of medical staff in the country could impact negatively on the newly launched school health programme.

The Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, reportedly said that the 500 retired nurses employed to run the programme would not be enough.

According to the paper he said:  “If we train 10 times the number of doctors we have in this country, there will still be a shortage”.

Motsoaledi said a medical school is being built in Limpopo and that medical schools would increase their intake. More South Africans are also being trained in Cuba.

The biggest challenge facing public healthcare today is the shortage of healthcare workers. The Health Department’s human resources strategy document, launched in October last year, estimated an 83 043 shortfall of all health professionals in the country.

Thousands of South African doctors are working abroad. In 2003, more than 23 000 South African health professionals ─ including 8 921 medical practitioners ─ were working in the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In fact, there are more South African doctors working abroad than there are working in the public sector in South Africa.

There has never been a better time to work together to find solutions – the country is starting to implement the ambitious National Health Insurance and we need many more healthcare workers to make it a success.

We agree with the Minister of Health that medical schools should increase their intake and support the move to build a new medical school.

However, South Africa also needs to acknowledge the role of foreign-qualified doctors. Many rural hospitals rely completely on these doctors as they cannot attract enough local doctors. There are currently more than 3 000 foreign-qualified doctors working in South Africa, constituting about 10% of the medical workforce. However, there is room to employ more. In the UK, a country with more resources than South Africa, more than one-third of registered doctors qualified abroad.

Recruiting foreign-qualified doctors should not be seen as a short-term solution. Foreign-qualified doctors can aid hospitals in becoming self-sustainable. It’s easier to recruit local doctors once you have a team of foreign-qualified doctors in place. Junior doctors are more likely to seek work at a hospital where they can receive supervision and mentorship. Management can then move out of “crisis management” mode and focus on improving quality of care.

In partnership with the Department of Health and the Health Professions Council of South Africa, non-profit organisation Africa Health Placements has, since 2005, recruited almost 2 500 foreign-qualified and local healthcare workers for our public sector hospitals. These doctors have saved many lives, especially in rural areas. We need them to implement NHI.