Half of health managers think the NHS should restrict recruitment from non-EU countries, according to an NHS Employers survey.
The poll of 200 delegates at last week's NHS Employers conference, which included trust HR directors and other managers, revealed 51 per cent thought the health service should give priority to UK and EU applicants for all posts.
But a quarter (24 per cent) said trusts should be able to vary rules locally and 18 per cent said there should be open competition for all posts.
Union leaders warned against relying on staff from outside the UK. TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady told delegates the service had to invest in getting young people interested in NHS careers. She said migrant staff made a valuable contribution but added: "We can't rely on them to plug the skills gap."
Unison head of health Karen Jennings accused some private providers of "stripping" the health workforce from other countries, adding that the NHS must not follow suit. "It's far better to grow our own," she said.
But David Amos, workforce director at University College London Hospitals foundation trust, argued for an open-door policy. "If we are going to have world class services we need to recruit from all round the world," he said.
International Hospital Federation general secretary Per-Gunnar Svensson argued that the NHS could help shortages of health workers in poor countries through exchange schemes and programmes to develop overseas staff.