Over the past few years, I’ve had long conversations with many overseas trained doctors doing the jobs rejected by Australian graduates — working in rural and remote areas afflicted by the double whammy of worse health and fewer health services.

On top of coping with all the usual dislocations of the immigrant, these doctors also often find themselves doing tough jobs under difficult circumstances with inadequate preparation, training and support.

They also often face prejudice, not only from patients complaining about the “terrorist doctor” (and this was well before the arrest of the Gold Coast doctor, Mohammed Haneef), but also from colleagues, whether nurses, health administrators or other doctors.

Some also feel discriminated against because they don’t have access to the same services that their patients do — often they and their families have been expected to pay privately for Medicare and public schools.

Of course, discrimination is not a problem only for doctors — “institutional racism” within the health system means that many patients don’t have access to the same quality of care as the mainstream, according to this editorial in The Medical Journal of Australia.

But it’s a shame the furore over Dr Haneef is being used as another opportunity to question the standards of care provided by overseas trained doctors, rather than to examine how health systems and services so often fail to provide them with sufficient support to do their jobs properly.

This is not only a problem for these doctors. As a senior surgeon once told me: “All of these things are broader issues — why would you have a tiny town in the centre of Queensland with a very junior Australian trained doctor with no-one to supervise them?”

It will also be a shame if the current focus on overseas trained doctors fails to acknowledge the positive contributions that many are making. In Wagga Wagga, for example, Coptic Christian doctors from Egypt have built a state-of-the-art practice. The influx of about 25 Coptic Christian doctors to the area has reversed its doctor shortage.

Similarly, the concentration of Iraqi doctors in the Shepparton area has helped ensure services which are sensitive to the needs of the local community. In a multicultural society, patients can benefit from having access to doctors from a range of backgrounds.

After the Dr Death fiasco in Bundaberg, many overseas trained doctors — and not only in Queensland — felt a backlash.

Regardless of what transpires with Dr Haneef’s particular case, the medical profession and other groups need to show strong leadership in minimising any further backlash. After all, we can’t do without the services of overseas trained doctors who, as a Queensland GP once told me, are overdue some gratitude from the Australian community.

“They deserve respect and thanks,” she said. “Sometimes they don’t get that, in fact they are often treated in a disrespectful and even racist way. They are out there, often working as solo doctors in difficult and lonely positions without the support they were promised when they were recruited.

“There is the implication that they are not as good as Australian trained doctors but they are good enough to be sent to the hardest locations that Australian doctors refuse to live and work in.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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