Published: 14/10/2004, Volume II4, No. 5927 Page 11

The Department of Health is considering a deal with supermarket giant Tesco to guarantee a job with the retailer for the partner of every doctor the DoH recruits from Poland.

Medical adviser on international recruitment to the DoH Dr Steve Atherton told a seminar at the Polish Embassy last week that he had discussed the deal at a meeting held for Tesco executives to learn from the DoH's expertise in recruiting doctors from abroad.

The DoH now has four schemes that aim to recruit overseas doctors. Dr Atherton said it was targeting GPs, anaesthetists, radiologists, histopathologists, oncologists and psychiatrists.

He said there was no reason why 'any doctor who wants to' from Poland should not be able to work in the UK. But he warned that for international recruitment from the new EU states to be a success, NHS trusts would have to help foreign doctors with supervised practice, team working, appraisal for development purposes and language support.

The DoH has put in place a number of schemes to smooth the recruitment of foreign doctors by trusts. This includes a deal with NatWest Bank to allow foreign doctors to open a bank account even if they do not have a permanent UK address.

Since 10 new countries joined the EU in May, 428 doctors have registered with the General Medical Council. Of these, Poland has by far provided the most, and registrations from the country have risen every month since accession.

A total of 225 doctors have so far registered from Poland, with 71 doing so last month, the highest figure since 1 May.

Hungary has provided the second highest number of doctors, with 62, and Slovenia the fewest, with three.

GMC head of applications Martin Holt said it was unclear how many more applications could be expected from Poland.

Dr Shaaz Mahboob, an adviser to the five London strategic health authorities in recruiting overseas doctors, said Poland was always likely to provide the highest number of doctors from the 10 new states.

He said historic links between Britain and Poland, and the high quality of language skills in Poland, made the country the best source of medical staff for trusts.

He admitted that no Polish doctors had been given work in London with NHS assistance, although some junior doctors had been employed in the capital, having moved to the UK independently.

Their loss, our gain: the hardships they leave behind

Although not officially organised by the Polish government, the evening designed to sell the services of Polish doctors to the NHS was held in the imposing surroundings of the Polish embassy, with the Polish ambassador and a former Polish health minister due to speak.

In fact, both cried off, but the ex-minister's replacement began the evening with a disconcerting acceptance that the emigration of Polish doctors to the UK would mean them leaving a 'tragic' healthcare system in their native land.

British-Polish Chamber of Commerce executive director Barbara Stachowiak-Kowalska admitted that she offered a 'mixed message' in that the opportunities to plug gaps in the NHS came about because of 'failures of the system' in Poland.

She said that reforms started 15 years ago - after the end of Communist rule - to decentralise the Polish healthcare system had made little headway, with 600 of the country's 715 hospitals in debt last year, with a combined deficit of£1.3bn.

Poland undoubtedly has a huge pool of under-employed doctors (it has around 23 doctors for every 100,000 people, compared to just over 14 in this country) and the event's organisers, medical recruitment firm Charter Health, had helpfully brought over three eminent Polish doctors to demonstrate the clinical competence of Polish medics.

Consultant ophthalmologist Dr Jack Szendzielorz, who works at a teaching hospital in the city of Tychy, admitted that while 'it might sound unbelievable' some doctors had to take evening jobs to supplement their income.He was lucky, he said, because there was a private market for his cataract operations that allowed him to earn extra money.

Bearing in mind that the average Polish doctor earns just£5,000 per year, and that in real terms they are five or six times worse off than their UK counterparts, the appeal of an NHS salary becomes clear.