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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 July 2007, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Australia's Indian doctors feel the heat
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Class at
Medical schools hope to reduce the number of overseas doctors
Partly out of dedication but mainly out of necessity, Dr Vuda Nagamma has not taken a holiday for the past two years.

Trained in Bangalore, she came to Australia almost 26 years ago, and now runs a general medical practice on the outskirts of Sydney.

Such is the chronic shortage of doctors in Australia that she cannot find a locum to cover for her and her Indian husband, Dr Anantha Prakash.

Their predicament neatly encapsulates the problem facing the Australian health service and its heavy reliance on Indian and other foreign-trained doctors.

And the fear in the Indian expatriate medical fraternity is that the Howard government's handling of the arrest, charge and detention of Dr Mohammed Haneef, the Bangalore-trained doctor held in connection with the failed UK car bombings, will only exacerbate the problem.

'Deplorable'

"It will have a significant impact," says Dr Nagamma. "They'll think twice before coming to work in Australia. And that's going to create a problem here because we are acutely short of doctors in Australia."

Dr Vuda Nagamma
We depend on overseas doctors to work in remote and rural areas
Dr Vuda Nagamma

At least a quarter of Australia's medical workforce is overseas trained. In Queensland, where Dr Haneef worked, the figure is at least half.

Across the country, India alone provides 2,143 medical graduates. Only Britain, with 4,664, provides a greater number.

After working in the National Health Service in Britain, Dr Haneef responded to an advertisement in the British Medical Journal. He arrived on the Gold Coast last September, and worked in the country's busiest emergency department in its most rapidly expanding city.

The morning I visited Dr Nagamma in her Regents Park surgery, she split her time between performing her medical duties - she was treating an appreciative local woman who had just celebrated her 80th birthday - and putting the finishing touches on a statement to the media.

It came from the United India Association (UIA) and the Overseas Australian Medical Graduates Association (OAMGA), a body dominated by doctors from the sub-continent.

The statement condemned terrorism "in any shape or form", and supported any action taken by the Australian government to tackle it.

Mohammed Haneef pictured at university
Dr Haneef was arrested under new anti-terrorism laws in Brisbane

But it also assailed the Howard government, noting: "It is deplorable that the government is not doing enough to diffuse the community anxiety and media tainting and stereotyping of the Indian doctors."

Finally, the statement expressed the hope that the issue of Dr Haneef would be resolved "in such a way that the rule of law prevails and Dr Haneef is given a fair go".

There is a strong and widely-held view here that the 27-year-old Indian doctor arrested at Brisbane international airport as he tried to leave on a one-way ticket to India is not being given a "fair go", something which Australians hold dear.

His detention under immigration laws, even after a magistrate in Brisbane had granted him conditional bail, provoked an acid shower of criticism from within the legal community.

'Dr Death'

No less a figure than the Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, has likened the performance of the Australian federal police to the "Keystone Cops".

During the bail hearing, a prosecution lawyer told the court that a SIM card once owned by Dr Haneef had been found in the burning car which rammed Glasgow Airport.

Police sources revealed later that it had been retrieved in Liverpool, hundreds of miles away, thus weakening the case against him.

There is no evidence yet of Indian doctors reversing their decision to come to Australia or of others leaving the country, but it remains a concern.

Dr Vuda Nagamma  with patient
Without foreign doctors, Australia's health care system would struggle

The Queensland Health Minister, Stephen Robertson, even went on an Indian news channel to try to allay concerns and to say that Indian doctors were deeply valued members of the medical community.

No wonder: a quarter of Queensland's overseas doctors come from India.

This is not the first time a Queensland-based Indian doctor has made the headlines.

The state is still reeling from allegations that at least 80 patients might have died between 2003 and 2005 because of botched surgery performed by Jayant Patel, an Indian-trained surgeon known as "Dr Death".

Dr Patel, 57, was the director of surgery at a hospital in Bundaberg, and fled Australia for America when the press started looking into allegations of incompetence.

As Andrew Schwartz of the Australian Doctors Trained Overseas Association has noted: "The Australian public already has a fear when they know that the doctor is overseas-trained. Is this person competent?

"That's all you need for them to have that fear. Not only is he competent, but is this person a terrorist?"


SEE ALSO
Trial of David Hicks 'a charade'
24 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia terror laws under scrutiny
19 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Haneef lawyers appeal detention
18 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Indian doctor in UK plot charge
14 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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