Exclusive Only 124 GPs recruited via NHS England’s international GP recruitment programme are still practising in England, figures obtained by Pulse have revealed.
A Freedom of Information request sent to NHS England found a total of 155 GPs had been recruited via the programme between 2018 and 2021 – against a target of 2,000 by 2020.
NHS England said in its response that 31 doctors had also left the programme during the same period, leaving just 124 still practising in England.
The programme was launched in March 2018 and closed to new applicants in September 2020. Prior to 2018 a series of local pilots were in operation, which continued to run alongside the national programme.
The figures provided by NHS England only include GPs recruited via the national programme.
An NHS spokesperson said expanding the GP workforce remains ‘a top priority’.
Deputy chair of the BMA GP Committee Dr Kieran Sharrock, who led a local pilot for overseas recruitment in his role as medical director at Lincolnshire LMC prior to the national programme, told Pulse that Brexit was likely to be the ‘main issue’ behind the low numbers.
‘You’ve got to remember that this all coincided with a period when the UK voted to leave the EU. The doctors who were being recruited were being recruited from across the EU and it created significant uncertainty for them,’ Dr Sharrock said.
He added that because UK general practice is ‘much broader and deeper’ than general practice in other European countries, GPs coming to work here need significant training and support – but they might not have been recruited through the programme with that expectation, which ‘may have been a problem’.
‘When we did it with our doctors [in Lincolnshire], it was clear from the outset that we weren’t expecting them to come and work straight away as GPs – we wanted them to come and do the language training initially, and then a significant period of upskilling in terms of how to be a UK GP,’ he said.
NHS England had initially pledged to recruit an extra 500 doctors from overseas between 2016 and 2020, but it later expanded the programme and upped the target to 2,000.
The main route available to overseas GPs now is Health Education England’s GP International Induction Programme, which is supported by NHS England. There is also support available for international medical graduates, and the portfolio route for GPs returning from abroad.
But Dr Sharrock said a ‘long-term structured programme’ is needed to recruit significant numbers of GPs from overseas.
‘For instance [in the UK] we see children, we do obstetrics and gynaecology, we do geriatrics – and in a number of places around the world that’s not the role of the GP…,’ he said.
‘So we need a programme where we can make sure that the doctors who come are completely upskilled, otherwise they will choose to not come.’
He added that he still believes overseas recruitment could be ‘a significant answer to our shortage of GPs’.
‘We know we’re 1600 fewer GPS than we had in 2015, we are way off the extra 6,000 GPs that the Government has promised us, but we also know that there are a number of doctors working all over the world, not just in Europe, who want to come and work in the UK,’ he said.
‘If we don’t have an active recruitment campaign they will go and work somewhere like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, wherever else.’
Dr Sharrock also said that a solution is needed for overseas doctors who train as GPs in the UK but then have to leave because they are unable to find a practice who is able to sponsor them.
He suggested that this could be a five-year visa ‘on the proviso’ that these doctors complete their training and then ‘maybe do a GP fellowship or work in the NHS for the two years following’.
‘But there needs to be a solution, so that doctors who have gone through our vocational training schemes don’t have to leave just because their visa runs out,’ he added.
An NHS spokesperson said: ‘Expanding the GP workforce remains a top priority for the NHS and in fact general practice has recruited over 18,000 more staff to additional roles, such as pharmacists, paramedics and mental health practitioners, since 2019 – ahead of the Government’s target – with record numbers also training to become GPs in the last year.’
The RCGP said earlier this month that it heard of ‘thousands’ of UK-trained overseas GPs being threatened with removal from the country because their visas were expiring. Under immigration rules, doctors are allowed to train for five years and then apply for indefinite leave to remain, but this has caused GPs who completed training in three years.
Earlier this week, the RCGP warned that 19,000 GPs and trainees could exit the profession over the next five years, unless workforce and workload issues are urgently addressed.