NHS eyes GPs from India amid 'unsustainable' rising workloads
NHS education bosses are considering bringing GPs over from India in a move that could bolster the number of doctors in England.
Health Education England (HEE) has signed a "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) with Apollo Hospitals in India which may in future see a flow of staff into the NHS if they can pass rigorous tests.
Earlier this week, researchers warned that the increase in GP workloads - up 16% over the last seven years - was "unsustainable" .
Doctors' leaders said general practice was in "crisis" after the study showed that family doctors in England are dealing with more frequent and longer consultations with rising numbers of patients.
HEE has been tasked by the Government with increasing GP numbers by 5,000 by 2020.
In the new memorandum of understanding, the plan is to share ideas and staff with India.
A statement from Apollo Hospitals said : 'We have signed this memorandum of understanding as a starting point to exploring how both countries can benefit from the mutual exchange of ideas and clinical staff in improving the education and training of healthcare staff and therefore the quality of care provided to patients.
"These are initial discussions but we look forward to announcing the outcomes of this work over the coming months and years as it progresses."
A statement from HEE, which is currently running a GP recruitment campaign, said: "England and India have signed a memorandum of understanding as a starting point to exploring how both countries can benefit from the mutual exchange of ideas.
"The details of the MoU are still in discussion.
"Since its establishment in 2013, HEE has honoured its commitment to invest more in GP training by increasing the number of training posts available. We spend nearly £500 million a year on GP training. We will be working closely with NHS England to provide 5,000 more doctors in general practice by 2020."
Dr Maureen Baker, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said doctors would not be simply "parachuted" into the NHS.
She said: "We welcome any expressions of interest from doctors outside of the EU wanting to work in the NHS - but they would first have to undergo GP specialty training, and pass our rigorous entrance assessment. They would also have to pass the GMC's professional linguistic and assessments board test.
"The RCGP has had a longstanding partnership with Apollo/Medvarsity in India, and we accredit their diploma in family medicine - but this recognises excellence in family medicine at an international level. It is not a shortcut to becoming a GP in the UK.
"Over 3,000 GP trainees a year take the College's exam. This (MRCGP) is a world-renowned, comprehensive and robust assessment that demonstrates to us - and crucially, our patients - that our trainees are ready to practise independently and safely.
"The College is working hard to 'recruit, retain and return' as many GPs as possible so that we can continue to give our patients the safe care they deserve.
"If doctors from outside of the UK can undergo and pass our rigorous assessment process, then we would welcome their skills and expertise in UK general practice."
Dr Ramesh Mehta, president of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, told Pulse magazine, which revealed details of the plan, that his contacts in India have said HEE wants "as many GPs as possible".
He said: "I think it is a pity that HEE have to go abroad to recruit for GP positions. Unfortunately, the training of GPs has not been managed properly over the years."
He said GPs who come over from India would have to be "given proper support and mentoring so they don't land in trouble, as has happened in the past when doctors are put in the NHS without proper induction".
Dr Umesh Prabhu, former chair and current member of the British International Doctors Association executive committee, said of the plan: " This is a most dangerous thing, because these doctors are not trained to be GPs in the UK.
"Their training is entirely different. I have concerns for the doctors' safety and the patients' safety."
The Patients Association issued a warning over a rise in the number of calls from patients about GPs.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the charity, said: "We receive countless calls to our helpline from patients who are unable to obtain a GP appointment at a time when they need one.
"It would be simply unacceptable if long waiting times to see a GP become the norm."
She added: "If the Government is looking to recruit doctors from India and elsewhere, then there must be reassurance that patient-doctor communications will not be compromised.
"We have also heard from our helpline that patients express concerns about the communication skills of practitioners from outside the UK.
"All patients rely on their doctors to give them the advice, support and treatment that they need. It's therefore important that patients feel that they are easily able to communicate with those who are providing those services.
"As well as a good command of the English language, any medical professional must also have a good understanding of local policies and procedures."
Ms Murphy said it was " vital" that efforts are made to train and retain more GPs in the UK.
"However the indications are that the Government is likely to train less than half of its 5,000 target by 2020," she said.
"With fewer GPs going into the profession, many UK-based GPs looking to work abroad and 7,200 GPs retiring within the next five years, this must ring alarm bells."
Lord Hunt, Labour's shadow health minister, said: "This Tory Government has presided over a chronic shortage of GPs, which has forced them to look abroad to try and plug the gaps in the NHS workforce.
"Ministers need to provide assurances that any doctor recruited from abroad will continue to go through rigorous assessment to guarantee they are able to deliver safe care to NHS patients.
"The reality is that this short-term fix will do nothing to address the crisis in general practice which has happened on this Government's watch."