Britain relies more heavily on foreign doctors than any other major EU nation, according to international research.
More than a third of NHS doctors – 35 per cent – were born abroad, the report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has shown.
The figure puts Britain ahead of every other country in the European Union except Luxembourg, and with a total three times that of Germany.
Yet the UK is also one of the highest exporters of doctors, the report discloses. Critics attacked “revolving door” immigration policies which meant the UK has spent billions of pounds training medics who went abroad, only to rely on overseas labour to plug the gaps.
The UK is also among the nations most dependent on foreign nurses, the report discloses. The figures cover the period 2001-02 to 2011-12.
In total, 21.7 per cent of nurses were born abroad – a sharp increase from a decade earlier when the figure was 15.2 per cent. Across the EU, only Luxembourg, Ireland and Estonia are more dependent on nurses from overseas. The report shows that the UK saw the highest surge in the number of foreign-born doctors, with 34,000 more medics coming here from abroad.
Forty per cent of the overall rise in doctors over the past decade and 65 per cent of the growth in nurses over the period can be attributed to the arrival of foreign workers, the OECD found.
In total, 35.4 per cent of doctors working here now were born overseas, compared with just 5 per cent in Italy, 10.7 per cent in Germany and 19.5 per cent in France, the statistics show.
Until June this year, it was not legal for regulators to test the language skills of doctors if they came from within the European Economic Area.
The law was changed after concern over a series of cases, including that of a Nigerian GP who worked in Germany and killed a British pensioner by giving him a massive dose of painkillers.
Earlier this month, separate research found that hospitals with high numbers of foreign-born nursing staff had the highest levels of patient dissatisfaction and received far worse ratings from them.
The study by King’s College London and the University of Southampton found that patients at those hospitals were more likely to say they struggled to understand staff and were less likely to feel treated with dignity.
"We have heard from patients on our helpline that there can be real issues with some doctors and nurses from other countries"
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association
Katherine Murphy, the chief executive of the Patients Association, said more needed to be done to ensure that a heavy reliance on overseas labour did not jeopardise care.
“We have heard from patients on our helpline that there can be real issues with some doctors and nurses from other countries; including problems with communication and a lack of understanding of processes and procedures,” she said. “Trusts and practices must make sure that overseas staff have the necessary support and training to be able to offer patients safe and effective care.”
The report shows that the UK is the second-highest exporter of medics, behind Germany, with 17,000 British doctors now working abroad.
Ms Murphy expressed concern about the number of British doctors choosing to work overseas after undergoing training costing the taxpayer around £250,000 apiece.
“The debacle of the junior doctor contract negotiations has highlighted the level of discontent that many doctors now feel working in the NHS,” she said. “With services stretched and a shortage of staff, it is vital that the NHS holds on to these doctors.”
"These figures largely predate our reforms which are intended specifically to increase the supply of home-grown staff"
Department of Health spokesman
India and the Philippines were the largest exporters of doctors and nurses to OECD countries by a “spectacular” margin, the study found.
The 2007 economic crisis fuelled migration of doctors and nurses from Eastern, central and southern Europe.
“They experienced considerable outflows of health workers at the end of the 2000s, most of whom headed for Germany and the United Kingdom,” the report said.
“Although the accession of new member states to the EU in 2004 had a significant, albeit time-limited, curbing effect on health-worker emigration, the crisis triggered it afresh.
“In Romania and Bulgaria, the combined effects of EU accession in 2007 and the economic crisis have led to high rates of emigration to this day.”
More than 50,000 British nurses now work in health care systems in the other OECD nations – behind only the Philippines and India. In addition, 17,000 UK doctors work in other OECD members’ health systems, behind only India, China and Germany.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “Overseas staff are a crucial part of the NHS team but they must have the relevant qualifications and good communication skills.
“These figures largely predate our reforms which are intended specifically to increase the supply of home-grown staff.
“There are already more than 8,500 additional nurses on our wards and 10,100 more doctors since 2010, while recent changes to student nurse bursaries are set to increase the number of home-grown nursing, midwifery and allied health training places by up to 10,000 by 2020.”
NHS figures for 2014 suggest 25 per cent of doctors are non-British, and 13.5 per cent of nurses – statistics which are still among the highest in Europe.