Foreign doctors have long wait to practise

26 October 2010 - 01:05 By HARRIET MCLEA and CHANDRÉ PRINCE

Foreign doctors and nurses desperate to practise their skills in South Africa are forced to wait up to six years to be registered by the Department of Health.

Health professionals from countries including the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Canada are among the almost 2000 who have been waiting for up to eight months for approval from the department just to begin the process of obtaining a licence to practise medicine in South Africa.

This while patients queue for hours to see overburdened medics working long hours in overcrowded public hospitals.

In a written response to a parliamentary question, the department revealed yesterday that its nine-member team that registers foreign doctors and nurses has only one qualified member.

The rest of the people working on the department's foreign workforce management programme are three staff members with only a matric, one with a grade-11 pass, one with "a call centre certificate", and another with a criminal justice system qualification and a computer literacy certificate.

One member has a diploma in human resources management and training, another a degree in administration.

The only appropriately qualified staff member has a masters degree in public health.

Now, 385 applications from foreign health professionals are waiting to be processed.

Foreign doctors wanting to work in South Africa must first receive approval from the programme before registering with the Health Professions Council of SA, which vets their qualifications and tests their competence.

Council spokesman Bertha Peters-Scheepers said registration was a "lengthy process".

"We need all the information [qualification documents] in order to process the applications. If there is one piece of paper outstanding, we cannot process it," she said, adding that "a lot of the time it is the letter from the [Department of Health] programme" that is outstanding.

Dr Bongani Mayosi, head of medicine at the University of Cape Town, said the policy governing the recruitment of foreign-qualified doctors was "progressive" but the problem was "administrative".

This, he said, meant that applications usually take 18 months to be processed - "What takes a year should take a week."

He said foreign-qualified doctors "play a particularly important role in working in public hospitals, particularly in rural areas."

The Eastern Cape Health Department, which has a shortage of about 1000 doctors, was recently forced to fast-track the appointment of at least 69 foreign doctors, some of whom had waited about six years to be registered.

Provincial health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said it was a "frustrating process that affects public healthcare".

"Some of these doctors were already in the country and unable to find work because of all the paperwork. Some had to wait about six years. We had to intervene," said Kupelo.

It took Eastern Cape a month to get the doctors - from Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries - registered.

Kupelo said the registration of foreign doctors was further delayed because the Department of Home Affairs was also involved in the process.

Kupelo said the national Department of Health's programme had to provide foreign doctors with letters confirming its intent to employ them.

"The doctors would than have to indicate their province of choice and afterwards submit their application to Home Affairs," he said.

"If Home Affairs is satisfied with the status of the foreign doctor, they would issue a work permit."

But the Health Professions Council takes months to give foreign doctors the dates on which they are to write their competency tests, Kupelo said.

DA health spokesman Mike Waters said the programme was "notorious for long delays".

He said he will ask Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to review the programme.

Waters said that a UK nurse with a masters degree was rejected because her qualification was too "specialised".

South African universities produce 1200 doctors a year, but SA Medical Association spokesman Phophi Ramathuba said: "Even if we got 3000 more doctors, that would not be enough."