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Background: Economically developed countries have recruited large numbers of overseas health workers to fill domestic shortages. Recognition of the negative impact this can have on health care in developing countries led the United Kingdom Department of Health to issue a Code of Practice for National Health Service (NHS) employers in 1999 providing ethical guidance on international recruitment. Case reports suggest this guidance had limited influence in the context of other NHS policy priorities.Methods: The temporal association between trends in new professional registrations from doctors qualifying overseas and relevant United Kingdom government policy is reported. Government policy documents were identified by a literature review; further information was obtained, when appropriate, through requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. Data on new professional registration of doctors were obtained from the General Medical Council (GMC).Results: New United Kingdom professional registrations by doctors trained in Africa and south Asia more than doubled from 3105 in 2001 to 7343 in 2003, as NHS Trusts sought to achieve recruitment targets specified in the 2000 NHS Plan; this occurred despite ethical guidance to avoid active recruitment of doctors from resource-poor countries. Registration of such doctors declined subsequently, but in response to other government policy initiatives. A fall in registration of South African-trained doctors from 3206 in 2003 to 4 in 2004 followed a Memorandum of Understanding with South Africa signed in 2003. Registrations from India and Pakistan fell from a peak of 4626 in 2004 to 1169 in 2007 following changes in United Kingdom immigration law in 2005 and 2006. Since 2007, registration of new doctors trained outside the European Economic Area has remained relatively stable, but in 2010 the United Kingdom still registered 722 new doctors trained in Africa and 1207 trained in India and Pakistan.Conclusions: Ethical guidance was ineffective in preventing mass registration by doctors trained in resource-poor countries between 2001 and 2004 because of competing NHS policy priorities. Changes in United Kingdom immigration laws and bilateral agreements have subsequently reduced new registrations, but about 4000 new doctors a year continue to register who trained in Africa, Asia and less economically developed European countries. © 2012 Blacklock et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

Original publication




Journal article


Human Resources for Health

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