South African opposition MPs say government policies are driving medical graduates overseas and that new legislation will speed up their flight.
The Democratic Alliance has called on the government to improve pay and conditions in the public health system and to review policies such as compulsory one-year community service for new graduates, many of whom are forced to work far from home under difficult conditions.
Last month, 3,000 doctors staged a march on Parliament in protest against the national health bill and conditions in the sector.
The bill introduces a certificate that new doctors must obtain to open a surgery or clinic. It also dictates where they may practice and further regulates the dispensing of medicines. The government says it is aimed at ensuring more equitable distribution of doctors away from overserviced wealthy areas to poor areas and will be supported by allowances for doctors in rural areas. But critics call the certificate "Stalinist".
The number of South African doctors abroad is estimated at more than 9,000, with many migrating to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.
Magda Naude, spokesperson for the South African Medical Association, said the country had fewer than 25,000 practicing doctors and a public-sector shortage of nearly 5,000 out of 14,500 posts.
Sandy Kalyan, health spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, said the number of South African doctors abroad indicated that "greater urgency" was needed to implement the repatriation programme for medical practitioners, which was adopted in July 2003.
Ms Kalyan said: "The only way to entice medical professionals back to South Africa is to make practicing in their own country more attractive than settling overseas. Punitive legislation is counterproductive, driving medical professionals away."
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister, said in Parliament last week that 1,323 medical students graduated from South African universities in 2003, slightly up from 1,207 the year before, 1,1 in 2001 and 1,153 in 2000.