Foreign doctors not tested, despite pledge
By ***** Wroe
July 9, 2004
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The Victorian Government has failed to keep a promise made almost two years ago to ensure all foreign doctors' skills are up to scratch through tougher tests and better training.
In late 2002, then health minister John Thwaites said the Government would tighten screening of overseas-trained doctors by January 2003.
The pledge followed a report in The Age that revealed 283 such doctors were working in Victorian hospitals without having passed the standard Australian Medical Council exam.
The Age has learnt foreign doctors in Victoria face no greater scrutiny now than two years ago, partly because the Government was worried stricter testing would drive doctors emigrating to Australia to states with less rigorous standards. The Government chose instead to push for national standards.
As well as this, a committee within the Postgraduate Medical Council of Victoria that is responsible for developing new tests to improve foreign doctors' skills has not finished its work.
Its chairman, Professor Barry McGrath, said Mr Thwaites's 2002 pledge was too ambitious.
"The minister did go a little bit out on a limb and make promises that would be unrealistic," he said. "We were cautioning them to proceed slowly and be mindful of the national implications."
Victoria has funded cultural training to foreign doctors since January, but Professor McGrath's committee is still developing standardised interviews and computer questionnaires to test overseas doctors, and guidelines to improve supervision and training of them in hospitals.
A Government spokesman said Victoria had developed a further test that was a "bar for (new foreign doctors) to jump over" and had given it to the Federal Government as a possible national benchmark.
A federal Health Department spokeswoman confirmed the department was "very interested" in the Victorian work.
The Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria can give foreign doctors conditional registration before they have passed the medical council exam. This usually means they must be supervised by the hospital where they work.
State hospitals had 185 foreign doctors working in them on conditional registration on September 30, 2003, according to the board.
Australian Medical Association vice-president Mukesh Haikerwal said junior doctors and nurses were having to cover for the failings of some overseas doctors, who he said were not getting the supervision and training they needed.
"(Foreign doctors) are being exploited... because if they speak up they will get kicked out," he said.
Joanna Flynn, president of the board, said: "The board doesn't have any evidence that there are problems, but we do recognise that it would be better if there were uniform processes of supervision."
The issue flared this week after a Monash University study found 3000 foreign-trained doctors were practising in Australia without having passed the medical council exam - which many would probably fail.
Assessment of overseas doctors is also a pressing issue because the Federal Government aims to attract about 750 more to work in parts of Australia where doctors are in short supply.
Department figures show 21 doctors have begun work as permanent residents and another 33 will start soon. And at least 231 overseas doctors have had their temporary visas extended from two to four years under a special government exemption.