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At my first international conference, I was pleasantly surprised by the numbers of women I met from across the globe, who came and spoke to me about working in the UK. Their experiences and stories varied, yet it was evident they had a shared sense of privilege, for having the opportunity to have worked in our NHS.
On reflection, throughout medical school and my career, I have been taught, supported and worked alongside an uncountable number of foreign born women professors, doctors and nurses.
Since its formation in 1948, the NHS could not have developed without the help of foreign professionals from across the world. Thousands of doctors emigrated from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, to help fill the post-war shortages. By 1960, following numerous mass recruitment drives, 30 per cent of all junior doctors in the UK were from the Indian sub-continent.
Today, more than a third of doctors on the medical register gained their primary medical qualification outside of the UK. Many see the UK as an opportunity to gain experience and professional development, but in turn are invaluable in filling rota gaps and workforce shortages.
In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for non-EU doctors to come to the UK, due to stricter immigration laws and complex registration requirements for those outside the EU. In turn the NHS has become increasingly reliant on EU nationals to keep it on its feet, with 33,420 EU nationals employed in 2012 to 57,063 NHS staff employed (including 10,267 doctors) as of February this year.
A Swedish national I know spent eight years in UK training at St George’s in London then working in Basingstoke Hospital. Shortly after the Brexit vote, she made the difficult decision to leave her life in UK and return to Sweden.
The vote and ongoing rhetoric has made many foreign doctors feel undervalued and uneasy about their future in the UK. With the prime minister Theresa May stating foreign doctors are here just for the ‘interim period - until the further number of British doctors are able to be trained’ and still no guarantee on the right of EU nationals to remain, many feeling ‘frightened and anxious’ for their future here.
Racist attacks on NHS staff have more than doubled in a year, with the Brexit campaigning blamed for inflaming tensions in hospitals. Assaults on health service employees involving religious or racial factors rose from 225 in 2014-15 to 496 in 2015/16, with a continued rise in recent months, following the referendum result.
I myself (ethnically Asian) for the first time in my lifetime received a racist insult, whilst working on the wards in the Brexit aftermath.
A Belgian GP, who has worked in the south of England for past 15 years, told me that after the Brexit vote she feels uncertain for her future. She has lived, worked and brought up a family here, yet she feels her right to remain here with her loved ones is being used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
It is too early to tell the consequence this will have on our foreign doctors, but many, like the Swedish doctor, may feel unwelcome with the underlying tone and ongoing rhetoric. She explains: ‘International doctors are likely to become an increasingly important asset in the NHS and worryingly it is a system that is becoming less attractive to come and work for.’
A diverse NHS, open to all, is integral to its success. We should be proud and thankful of the contribution of women doctors from across the globe have had to our NHS, as they are the role models for the next generation.
Dr Pratibha has spent the past 30 years working for the NHS as consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology and college tutor. She recalls ‘life has not been simple’, as a south Indian woman working in a foreign country. But her determination and passion for the NHS, is what inspired her daughter Miss Arya who is now training as a surgeon.
On International Women’s Day, let’s make a point to talk about, respect and celebrate the work of international women doctors and their priceless contribution to our NHS.
Sonia Adesara is a trust grade doctor, working in sexual health in London. She is co-chair of Young MWIA, part of the Medical Women’s International Association, which promotes communication and co-operation amongst medical women around the world.
Miss Pallav Arya, a CT2 in general surgery at the Royal London hospital and Dr Prathiba Arya, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Alexandra hospital in Redditch are cited in this blog.
Read Anthea Mowat's blog