Doctors within borders

India should try to keep its doctors home, rather than wooing those already abroad

India has continued to struggle with health disparities and a poorly funded public health sector in spite of its rapid rise as a global economic power. To add to that, it is the largest exporter of highly qualified physicians, a phenomenon often referred to as the Indian brain drain. At the Global Healthcare Summit in Kochi, the possibility that the country would allow physicians of Indian origin who have trained abroad to function as fully-practising physicians in India was discussed.

The goal of the summit was increasing the cooperation of overseas Indians in healthcare delivery back home. The Union health secretary, P.K. Pradhan, said the Centre would soon push legislation to permit overseas Indian doctors to practise in the country without any further tests or licences.

Unfortunately, this proposal is not likely to address the shortage of physicians within India or the country's pressing healthcare needs. For decades, the Indian government and members of civil society have lamented the physician brain drain, where Indians who completed medical school in the country sought greener pastures abroad to pursue advanced medical training.

Today, India is the largest exporter of trained physicians, accounting for about 4.9 per cent of American doctors and 10.9 per cent of British doctors. Over 60,000 Indian physicians practise in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia — a workforce equal to 10 per cent of the physicians in India and the largest emigre physician workforce in the world. Worse yet, surveys conducted among the alumni of Indian medical colleges show that the better students and institutions account for a disproportionately large share of emigrating physicians. For example, of the students graduating from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences between 1989 to 2000, over 50 per cent had left India and migrated abroad a decade later.

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