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Last Updated: Monday, 12 March 2007, 16:35 GMT
Australia headhunts British GPs
by Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Dr Dunstan's car at the beach
A scene from the promotional DVD: All this could be yours

The undulating hills of New South Wales provide a landscape rich in beauty but bereft of doctors.

And the dreamy rural idyll of running or working in a country practice is becoming increasingly unattractive, as young Australian doctors opt for the city over the sticks.

Facing a chronic shortage of GPs, the message now being delivered to thousands of British GPs is: "Rural Australia needs you."

Some 1,700 promotional DVDs are being sent to British GPs to tempt them into starting a new life in the southern hemisphere.

With 30,000 British junior doctors chasing just 22,000 NHS posts, the recruitment blitz is set to intensify.

Slickly produced and exquisitely filmed, the DVD feels like a hi-tech SOS.

It features five British doctors who have already made the journey to rural communities in New South Wales, brimming with self-satisfaction over the wisdom of their move.

A country practice

"This is my lovely drive to work," says Dr Dunstan Thompson, sat behind the wheel of his white Mercedes, a surfboard fastened to the roof rack, as he meanders though the picture-postcard scenery of northern New South Wales.

"I used to work in London. You know what it's like - you either catch the tube or get road rage all the way to work - a bit of swearing, a bit of finger pointing."

His journey ends on pristine beach with his telegenic young family, looking like they have all hopped straight from an advertisement for Ralph Lauren.

The point is emphatically made: life as an Australian rural doctor truly is the business.

Thompson family at the beach
Dr Thompson - a long way from London

Right now, there are 175 unfilled vacancies for GPs in rural New South Wales, and the long-term prognosis is even bleaker. By 2012, it is estimated that there will be a shortfall of between 275 and 410 doctors.

The board displaying the brass name plates of the doctors at the Muswellbrook country practice, neatly illustrates the problem, for there are three empty spaces where names should be affixed.

"We've been advertising for many years," says senior partner Dr John Rogers, "And I'd say we get one serious, valid applicant from Australia per year. Occasionally we get a neurosurgeon from Moscow applying or a plastic surgeon from Beirut, but they're not really appropriate."

Global blitz

Of the 16 doctors in the practice, just six are Australian born. The others come from as far a field as Norway, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and China. "If you took out the overseas doctors," said Dr Rogers, "It would be totally unworkable. Our doctors would have to be on-call every other night. As it is now, we are almost at breaking point."

Without an influx of doctors some of the smallest country practices, he says, could ultimately wither and die.

Four years ago, Dr Steve Sylvester left behind his GPs practice in the North East of England and arrived in Scone, a small community four hours drive from Sydney. Originally, he signed up for five years, and now expects to spend the rest of his life in rural Australia.

"You use a wider range of your skills than in an office-based practice in the UK," said Dr Sylvester.

"You have a much sunnier outdoor lifestyle and, as a result it's much less stressful. And the pace of life is much slower than, which has to be a good thing."

Steve Sylvester loves the rural life, enjoying kayaking on the local river and reservoir and taking a full part in the church.

"It's very different waking up here and seeing the blue skies and the gum trees. Yeah, life's good. It's a completely different experience and one that really charges me up for the day - rather than the grey skies and slippery roads."

But what of the medical ethics of poaching doctors trained at the British taxpayers' expense?

Dr Sylvester kayaking
Dr Sylvester's sunnier outdoor lifestyle

"They don't have to stay," says Melissa Boucher, from the Rural Doctors Network, the organization behind the global recruitment blitz. "We would be more than happy if they just came over here for six months and do a locum term.

"Or have working holiday and then go home. We believe they'd really benefit from the experience and return to Britain better doctors."

Some of the remote communities definitely come with a health warning: they can be hundreds of miles from the nearest city; two days' drive from the nearest beach.

But British doctors are being asked to make a mercy mission. With 20% of the rural doctors approaching retirement, some country practices really do face extinction, unless the Poms come and save the day.


SEE ALSO
Review into doctor recruitment
07 Mar 07 |  Health
Jobs protest planned by doctors
02 Mar 07 |  Health
Junior doctors brain drain fear
15 Jun 06 |  Health

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