Answering media questions at the launch of the new long-term NHS workforce plan last month Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed that the practice of doctors leaving the NHS for Australia was not as widespread as people assume it is.
This led to a post on Twitter claiming that more than 12,000 doctors had moved to Australia in the last two years. The tweet contains a video of Mr Sunak. Superimposed on the video is an image of a Daily Telegraph article headlined “The Australian brain drain bleeding the NHS dry” and another image saying there was a shortage of 9,000 NHS doctors while 12,526 NHS doctors had moved to Australia in 2021 and 2022.
The tweet itself read: “Left: Rishi Sunak says that data shows not that many doctors are leaving the UK for Australia
“Right: Telegraph article shows 9k current shortage, 12k moved to Australia, meaning, if they didn't move, there wouldn't be a doctor shortage.”
Honesty in public debate matters
You can help us take action – and get our regular free email
Are there 9,000 vacancies and did 12,000 doctors move to Australia?
The tweet and the Telegraph article featured in it both state that there is a shortage of 9,000 doctors in the NHS. This figure is broadly correct for England. The latest data we have shows that in March this year there were the equivalent of around 8,500 full-time medical vacancies across the NHS in England.
The 12,526 figure seems to be based on a quote from Royal Society of Medicine president Roger Kirby. In the Telegraph article referenced in the tweet he says that in 2022 “6,950 UK doctors applied for a certificate to work abroad, rising from 5,576 in 2021”. These add together to reach 12,526.
But this seems to be the number of medics who requested certificates of good standing from the General Medical Council (GMC), not the number moving to Australia. When we asked the GMC about these figures it supplied us with the number of certificates of good standing issued each year, which matched the numbers in the Telegraph article.
It said these certificates confirmed to regulators in other countries that a doctor was in “good standing” with the GMC and whether there are any restrictions on their practice in the UK. But the GMC added that applying for a certificate of good standing did not necessarily mean a doctor had left the country, merely that it may show an intention to do so.
These figures also do not tell us the destination the doctors were planning to go to, so we don’t know how many of these doctors went to Australia, or for how long.
So it would be wrong to state that 12,526 NHS doctors had moved to Australia in 2021 and 2022 based on this data.
How many doctors are moving abroad?
In the clip used in the tweet, the Prime Minister is asked about doctors moving to Australia. In response Mr Sunak says “the data shows that it is not as widespread a practice as I think people assume it is.”
A longer video of the press conference shows the Prime Minister elaborating on the data he was referring to. He said “it was around 95% of people who after they completed their foundation training were still working in the NHS. So I think the scale of what is happening is not at the level that people commonly assume it is.”
When we asked NHS England about this figure it cited a 2017 GMC report which said only around 7% of doctors in the 2012 cohort completing the foundation programme had not returned to UK training after five years. This suggests 93% of doctors completing foundation training stay in the NHS, which is very close to Mr Sunak’s figure but based on quite old figures.
NHS England also quoted the GMC’s 2022 workforce report saying that the numbers of doctors leaving the UK workforce had been relatively constant since 2015.
The report added: “This number reduced in 2020, as doctors who would otherwise have retired stayed on to support the pandemic effort.
“Since mid 2021, we have seen a marked increase in those leaving UK practice – at the time of writing this report, this increase broadly balances out the pandemic-related dip, so it is not yet possible to say whether these increases are related or are a new trend of higher leaving rates.”
We have asked NHS England if it is suggesting that this means the figures cited from 2012 to 2017 are still correct.
Number 10 has not responded to our requests for comment or confirmed what data the Prime Minister was referring to.
Ministers must provide evidence for what they say, and ensure that any statistics and data they rely on to back up their claims are provided publicly in accordance with the Code of Practice for Statistics or relevant guidance. The OSR also recommends that when data is quoted publicly it should be “published in an accessible form”.
What do we know about doctors moving abroad?
While we have not found firm figures relating to the Prime Minister’s claim, there have been reports that growing numbers of doctors are thinking of moving abroad.
The GMC workplace experiences 2023 report found that among doctors who said they were likely to leave the UK profession 21% had contacted a recruiter and 14% had applied for a role abroad.
A poll by the British Medical Association (BMA), published last year, found that around 40% of UK junior doctors plan to leave the NHS as soon as they can find another job. Of those, around a third planned to move abroad in the next 12 months, with 42% of them saying Australia was their favoured destination. This suggests that around 5% of junior doctors polled wanted to move to Australia.
OECD figures also show that the total number of UK-trained doctors in Australia rose from 3,949 in 2013 to 6,621 in 2021.
The certificate of good standing data provided to us by the GMC shows that in 2022 6,950 certificates were issued to doctors, but 6,803 of them were still registered with the regulator and 5,137 were still registered and licensed in May this year.
To practise medicine in the UK doctors need to hold a licence to practise along with registration for the work that they do, the regulator said. So this data could suggest that the majority who applied for a certificate of good standing remained or returned to the UK, as they kept their registration and licence.
So this data cannot be used to give a reliable indication of how many doctors have moved abroad.
The GMC’s workforce report 2022 shows that 24% of doctors who left the register or relinquished their licence between May 2021 and May 2022 said they wanted to practise abroad, while 9% said they wanted to live abroad.
The report said that 1,403 UK-graduate doctors moved abroad in this period. Australia was the most popular destination with 630 medics moving there in the year to May 2022.
Image courtesy of Number 10.