International students enrolled at Australia's medical schools are helping to overcome a critical shortage of general practitioners, especially in rural areas.
The federal Government realised last year that Australia was facing a medical crisis and it began to establish new medical schools in universities along the east coast. But a leading medical educator told a conference last week that it would take ten years before the new schools began producing enough graduates to meet the shortfall.
Lesleyanne Hawthorne, assistant dean and director of the international unit in Melbourne University's medical faculty, said overseas-born and foreign fee-paying students now comprised a significant and growing proportion of those studying medicine and nursing. International medical students numbered 1,300 but their role in helping meet the shortfall in the number of of doctors was rarely recognised, Professor Hawthorne said.
She said other Western countries, such as Britain, Canada and America, were also becoming increasingly reliant on foreign students and overseas-born doctors to meet their medical workforce needs. A high proportion of foreign students enrolled in Australian medical schools were ethnic Chinese from Malaysia, Hong Kong and Vietnam. The proportion of first-generation migrants and refugees from these countries studying medicine was also far in excess of those from Anglo-Australian homes, Professor Hawthorne said.
"The role of international students and overseas-born doctors in particular has not been factored into debate about the medical workforce," she said.
Only a small number of Melbourne's overseas students graduating in medicine received hospital internships five years ago, whereas today almost all remained in Australia working in hospitals.
Professor Hawthorne said that in 1991, 40 per cent of Australia's medical workforce had been born overseas and by 2001 this had risen to 46 per cent.