Hundreds of foreign-born doctors, including refugees, have signed up to become medical support workers as part of a new scheme aimed at helping the NHS tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
NHS England launched the initiative for international medical graduates and doctors after calls to fast track the accreditation of overseas medics.
The NHS plans to deploy the workers, who have passed an English language exam, in small numbers initially.
The UN’s refugee chief this week called for more countries to allow refugee medical professionals to tackle the health crisis.
Filippo Grandi, the UN High commissioner for refugees, has praised the “selfless determination” of medical professionals who have already responded.
“Refugees with proven professional competencies are ready to step in and contribute, if allowed to, under the supervision of certified health professionals. In this way, they can show their solidarity, and give back to the communities sheltering them,” said Grandi.
Citing public appeals in European states for refugee health professionals to join the fight against coronavirus, Grandi said: “We fully support such initiatives and hope they can be further expanded across the continent and beyond”. Germany and Spain are among countries that have relaxed restrictions to fast-track international doctors into health services.
Refugee organisations and applicants have described the NHS England scheme as a good “first step” to allow doctors unable to complete registration to have a clinical role. But they urged the government and the General Medical Council (GMC) to find alternative solutions to allow them to work as doctors, saying the current process is too long, bureaucratic and expensive.
Hussam Allahham, 37, a surgeon who worked in a Syrian field hospital, has signed up for a medical support worker role along with his brother, Mohammed Chadi, also a doctor. Allahham now lives in Cardiff and is working for a refugee advice group.
“For me, a doctor’s life is to try to save lives as much as you can,” he said. His experience in a war zone mirrors what many medics are dealing with in the health crisis, he said.
“In Syria, you felt like you were fighting with death, trying to save lives,” said Allahham. “People are scared, death is everywhere. The health service is overstretched, you don’t have the equipment. Loads of people would come into the emergency room at the same time.”
Allahham has been in Britain for four years and has passed his language exam. He is due to sit the first of two conversion exams for overseas doctors in June. The second, practical exam has been cancelled temporarily due to the Covid19 crisis.
Dr Andrés Noé, an Australian studying malaria vaccines at Oxford, has also signed up to the NHS England scheme, describing it as a “positive step”. Noé has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to register with the GMC in recent weeks. He wants the government to speed up registrations, enabling highly trained specialists to work. He has applied to be an “acute care assistant”.
“The government and the GMC are not making it easy to help the NHS,” Noé said. “If they sound like doctors or act like doctors why not just call them doctors and give them the responsibility and protection doctors get?”
Anna Jones of RefuAid, which supports refugee professionals with language training and loans for accreditation, said about 100 refugees have signed up for the support role.
“I’m happy that they have done this,” said Jones. “But it is a first step, not the end goal. It permits people to work in a clinical environment, but it doesn’t permit doctors to work as doctors. For people who are close to qualifying, they see it as a step back. They want to take that final exam.”
Jones has suggested to the GMC the option of a skills assessment while working as a medical support worker, in lieu of the second of the exams.
An NHS England spokesman said it welcomed the “several hundred” expressions of interest in medical support worker roles.
A GMC spokesman said it was “continuing to support refugee doctors to meet our requirements for joining the register in future”.