Published: 15/08/2002, Volume III, No. 5818 Page 4

The NHS's scheme to attract highly qualified international doctors has failed to recruit a single heart and lung surgeon, HSJ has discovered. Cardiothoracic surgery is one of four shortage areas targeted by the government.

And though more than 60 doctors in three other specialties have been interviewed, none have yet been appointed to a post - six months after the international fellowship scheme was launched.

Last month, health secretary Alan Milburn said he expected to be able to shortlist 100 fellows to the first phase of the scheme for highly qualified international fellows, and that he expected the majority of them to be in place by the end of this year.

But this week, renowned heart surgeon Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, who is spearheading the international fellowship drive, told HSJ that progress had been slower than he would have liked, though he insisted the scheme was 'moving in the right direction.'

Though there have been 98 CVs submitted by doctors keen to work as cardiothoracic surgeons in Britain, only 30 had suitable skills to be considered for inclusion on the specialist register according to the Royal College of Surgeons - and, so far, none of them have asked for this formal assessment to be done.

Society of Cardiothoracic Surgeons president Colin Hilton told HSJ: 'My understanding is that the applicants do not fulfil the definition of excellence.'

Of the applicants for cardiothoracic surgery, 'probably only five to seven would get on a specialist register.'

A surgeon who had viewed seven CVs from applicants under the scheme had seen noone he would consider for a job, he added.

However, Sir Magdi said at least 35-40 candidates for cardiothoracic surgery 'would be of a very high calibre'. Overall the scheme was attracting enthusiasm among some very senior people, he added, but it had been difficult to find precisely where people were needed in Britain.

In the other three specialties - histopathology, radiology and psychiatry - the Department of Health said 63 candidates were interviewed in early July for 63 identified vacancies, though none have yet been appointed.

Further interviews in all the specialties - including cardiothoracic surgery - will now take place in September. A spokesperson said there was no target number for cardiothoracic surgeons, though the RCS has said it knows of six suitable vacancies.

The Royal College of Radiologists received 114 initial enquiries, but only 19 of these were likely to be eligible for inclusion on the specialty register. So far, none of these have submitted complete applications for assessment for the register.

But Dr Mike Shooter, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says the quality of applicants in the psychiatric field has been very good.

Of 123 original applications, 38 psychiatrists attended interviews and 29 of these were of an 'appointable' standard.

The international fellowship scheme was launched in February to attract up to 450 doctors to work in the UK for two years, in shortage specialties.

The DoH said the doctors involved would be 'the best surgeons and medical specialists from around the world'.

A spokesperson said the pilot phase of recruitment was 'on track' to bring in 50 doctors, with 450 planned over three years. Of 413 original applicants, 186 went forward on the basis of the royal colleges' assessment and 115 were shortlisted.

Applicants have come from Europe, Australia, Canada, India and the US. The DoH says it expects General Medical Council procedures to register doctors classified as overseas - generally those from outside Europe - should only take about two months. The GMC, however, says it currently takes around a year for a doctor starting the process from scratch.

Last month, Mr Milburn also announced that about 500 doctors - aside from Sir Magdi's scheme - had been identified as suitable for employment in the NHS, and about 100 matched to trusts.