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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 11:10 GMT
How Asian doctors saved the NHS
Asian GP
Asian GPs play a big role
When Health Minister Enoch Powell, appealed for help to staff his massively expanding health service 40 years ago, more than 18,000 doctors from the Indian Sub Continent answered his call.

Today, as the 1960s generation collectively approach retirement, the NHS is facing a crisis once again - and this time the health service may not be so lucky.

For 40 years doctors from South Asia have propped up and provided the backbone to the NHS. They arrived fresh from their medical schools, full of hopes and ambitions.

There was a pecking order and we just accepted it.
Dr Bashir Qureshi
But their dreams were quickly quashed when, instead of getting posts in teaching hospitals or top medical fields, many found that the only doors open to them were in the 'Cinderella' specialities like mental health, geriatrics and accident and emergency.

Others discovered that that the only opportunities offered were as GPs in Britain's most deprived inner city or industrial urban areas.

Time and time again many of them faced overt racism and made the best of the crumbs the British medical establishment offered them.

Limited opportunities

Dr Bashir Qureshi, who arrived from Pakistan in the early 1960s said: "There was a pecking order and we just accepted it.

"If a job came up the English person would get it first, followed by the Scot, the Welshman, the Irish, the Pakistani, the Indian, the Sri Lankan, the West Indian and then the African.

"This was always regardless of qualification - but it meant I knew I would get the fifth job to come up."

In 1968 many South Asian doctors also felt the backlash of Enoch Powell's famous 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968.

While Powell had not aimed his provocative words at the medics he had invited over, many of those who publicly protested against the influx of immigrant workers did not differentiate between unskilled and professional workers.

Dr Mark Johnson, of Leicester's De Montfort University, said: "I suspect at the time it must have hurt but that was the kind of hurt you didn't show. Asian people can be very private."

Vital role

Today Asian doctors have firmly established themselves as core members of Britain health service and a quarter of all Britain's medical workforce and medical students come from the Indian Sub Continent.
When they retire who is going to fill their shoes?
Dr Edwin Borman

In the Rhondda Valley of South Wales an incredible 73% of GPs are south Asian and in the neighbouring Cynon Valley the figure is 71%.

Those startling figures are repeated in other deprived and depressed areas.

Dr Aneez Esmail of Manchester University, said: "It is the South Asian doctors who have provided the service to these communities. I believe that without them the NHS would have collapsed."

But many of these doctors who arrived in the 1960s and 70s, are now preparing for retirement and there is a reluctance among medical students and newly qualified doctors to take on their practices and posts.

And the South Asian doctors' children - many of whom have followed in their parents' footsteps - are not prepared to accept second best.

Dr Edwin Borman, of the British Medical Association, said: "As these doctors are retiring we are now beginning to realise just how much they've contributed in areas the health service so badly needed them."

And Dr Borman warned that some inner city or deprived areas might even find themselves without GPs. He said a crisis was looming.

"When they retire who is going to fill their shoes? Who is going to look after their patients? This is a very real problem," he said.

In an effort to combat the problem steps are being taken to recruit more doctors and medical students and to try to keep doctors in their posts for as long as possible.

And, once again, the NHS is also looking abroad for help.

  • Time Shift: From the Raj to the Rhondda was broadcast on BBC Four on Wednesday, 26 November, and will be repeated at 2300 GMT on Sunday, 30 November.

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    05 Sep 03  |  Leicestershire
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