Some years ago, I took a phone call from an overseas trained doctor who was crying over the phone to me. He was so distressed because he had been put to work in an isolated spot in Queensland, without back up or support.

Working in remote areas without adequate support can be difficult for even the best trained and most experienced of doctors.

It is so much tougher for those who come from other countries and cultures, sometimes with little understanding of our complicated health system and how it works.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has announced plans to ask state medical boards to review the screening of overseas trained doctors, following revelations that Indian-born doctor Mohammed Asif Ali had allegedly lied about his medical experience to get a job in Queensland.

It’s worth noting that the issue with Dr Ali was not his clinical competence but that his history of medical experience was not completely accurate.

To some extent, Mr Andrews’ frustration is understandable – the states have been blaming the Commonwealth for not checking immigrants’ backgrounds, but it would be impossible for the Immigration Department to verify every detail on doctors’ CVs. That responsibility must lie with the health and medical organisations recruiting these doctors.

But it’s well past time that State and Federal Governments stopped blaming each other and instead focused on providing the resources to assess overseas trained doctors properly AND to support the ones here who are doing vital work, particularly in rural areas where they comprise nearly 50 per cent of the workforce, as they have for decades.

Don’t forget that Australia is enjoying the services of highly trained professionals, training which has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Australia is getting this for free. The least the States and Federal Government can do is contribute some money to support them.

So if Kevin Andrews is really concerned about the care being provided by overseas trained doctors, rather than taking the opportunity to bash the states in an election climate, he should be having a quiet word to his colleague, Tony Abbott, about how the Feds could work better with the states to support these doctors, especially in the neglected rural areas.

In the meantime, Queenslanders at least can be assured that there have been significant improvements in the wake of the Dr Patel affair, which was the result of extremely dysfunctional recruiting and monitoring systems in Queensland Health coupled with an under-resourced Medical Board.

The Queensland Medical Board now has a process in place that requires extensive documentation and verification of qualifications. All new overseas trained doctors (OTDs) are required to be orientated and monitored when they first enter the country. Ongoing supervision is dependent on their level of expertise and post graduate qualifications, some of which are equivalent to Australian qualifications.

It would seem sensible that the primary responsibility for the clinical competence of OTDs lies with the State Medical Board and the sponsoring organisation and with the OTDs themselves. They are all asked to sign a declaration that the information they give is accurate, if it turns out not to be so, then they deserve to have their visa cancelled.

The Medical Boards must be satisfied that the OTD is competent to perform the medical position in question and the new requirements in Queensland are certainly very strict in the private sector.

Dr Cronin graduated from the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, University of London in 1980. She has been working in rural and remote Queensland for 22 years.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey