A government initiative that could help hundreds of qualified refugee doctors and dentists find work in the NHS was launched last week.

Health minister John Denham announced£500,000 for the new scheme, which hopes to overcome what the British Medical Association describes as 'overwhelming obstacles' for refugee doctors to find work.

It will include a voluntary database with details of refugee doctors' medical training and individual skills.

It also offers the chance to take part in work attachments and shadow NHS doctors, alongside the opportunity to step up their training and language skills.

The move follows recommendations made in a report by the working group on refugee doctors and dentists produced on behalf of the Department of Health.

The report also calls for a 'structured, nationally consistent and regularly updated' information pack for refugees.

According to the report, it makes 'moral and economic sense' to 'make use of the skills of those refugees now legally settled in the UK'.

The health service is desperate for more doctors, with the NHS plan promising 7,500 more consultants and 2,000 more GPs by 2004.

But there appears to be confusion about the numbers of refugee doctors who could be re-trained to work in the UK.

The report believes the number of refugees currently in this country is nearer several hundred and says that 'precise information' on figures was not available.

But the BMA estimates that between 500 and 2,000 medically qualified refugees could start work in less than the six years it takes to train a doctor from scratch.

The government is ready to appoint an overseas recruitment 'czar' to help tackle NHS staff shortages. The czar will identify particular gaps in recruitment and find overseas workers to fill them.