Young Irish doctors are leaving Ireland in huge numbers, with a whopping 400 departing for Australia in just five months in 2022. Why is this happening, and what is the impact on the already-struggling Irish health service?
Australia has long been known as a dream destination for Irish people. Over the years, many Irish nationals have been lured to the expansive country, which promises sunny skies, guaranteed adventure, breath-taking beaches, natural beauty, well-paid jobs, complete with a robust economy, and a high standard of living.
For young doctors in particular, Australia is one of the most popular options for those seeking to move abroad. With eternal sunshine, an outdoor lifestyle that makes many fall in love with nature, hiking and beaches, along with opportunities for remote and rural training, it’s not hard to see why so many medics are straying to ‘Straya.
The mass exodus of young doctors from Ireland to Australia was studied in new research released just this month by the British Medical Journal, which dived into the phenomenon – after it was revealed that over 400 young Irish doctors had made the move to the country just five months into 2022.
While historically, most Irish doctors who emigrate from here return home, there is a growing sense of concern about medical talent increasingly being drained from our shores, with many talented young people seeing little reason to return to work in our beleaguered health service anytime soon.
A 2020 medical graduate from University College Galway told The BMJ that about 70% of recently qualified doctors from the college were now working in Australia – with UCG graduates working mainly in Perth, Western Australia, around 15,000 km away from Dublin.
While many expats will admit their hearts remain in Ireland, the benefits of life down under simply outweigh homesickness – and the improved working and living conditions, coupled with the good weather, simply makes life better for Irish talent.
442 Irish doctors were granted temporary work visas for Australia last year, which, in the context of the number of doctors we are training, is enormous (a total of 725 doctors graduated in Ireland in 2021). The BMJ found that almost 60% of newly qualified Irish doctors left for Australia last year.
The peer-reviewed medical journal found that 62 of 77 medical students from UCC who graduated in 2021 are currently practising in Australia, with working conditions cited as the most common cause for leaving Ireland.
One young female doctor (27) who left Ireland for Australia last summer told me that the quality of life for junior doctors in Australia is significantly better. Sinead — whose name has been changed to protect her privacy — spoke to me about her experience:
“The main thing that drew me to Australia was the climate, the chance to experience living somewhere new, and exploring another part of the world,” she explained.
The young doctor, who was previously working in Ireland, said it is well-known among young doctors that the work-life balance in Australia for doctors is “so much better than at home”.
She says since she arrived in the summer, her experience has been that her rota co-ordinator at the hospital where she works has been very accommodating, and has tried to arrange shifts around leave requests from staff.
“This is something that you never experience at home. Unless you’re a locum, you have basically no flexibility with your rota. Trying to arrange swaps is always difficult, and many times you’ll get your rota only a few weeks before starting the job so it’s difficult to plan anything in advance”.
Sinead, who works in ED, said when she compares her time in Australia with working in ED at home, she can see that her new workplace “is much more supported and well-staffed”.
“I would be a lot less likely to feel burnt out here. If anything I’d probably only feel burnt out because I’m squeezing in too many trips and holidays on my days off,” she laughed.
She also made the observation that young doctors in Australia “don’t seem to do the really long stretches of consecutive shifts here that we do at home”.
Another big difference is that junior doctors in Australia get paid extra per hour for working anti-social hours, something which does not happen in the Irish or UK system, she says.
“So, if you work evenings, weekends and Sundays are double pay,” she explains.
“And if you have to stay late, you get paid for the extra hours you work, whereas at home, if you have to stay late (which can happen a lot), you don’t get paid for that, unless you’re a locum”.
It’s no secret that Ireland has a long history of doctor emigration – UK research estimated that 71% of Ireland’s medical graduates back in 1950-1966 had emigrated by 1969. However, relatively little interest exists around doctor emigration, based heavily on the belief and reality that emigrant doctors will return home, with doctor emigration a benefit for Ireland.
But last May, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) was compelled to issue a warning that patients here requiring catch-up care after Covid delays are facing a critical year as doctor emigration explodes. Figures presented at the IMO’s annual general meeting last Spring showed that 402 doctors had emigrated to Australia just five months into 2022, up from 272 in 2019 – with the lifting of travel bans contributing to further emigration.
The union representing Irish doctors has long highlighted serious concerns regarding the working conditions facing junior doctors – or non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHDs) as they are formally known. The union balloted for potential industrial action last Spring, saying young doctors here are working 80-hour-weeks, including 24-hour-shifts, which can only put patients at increased risk.
Junior doctors have said for many years now that the number of hours they are expected to work is unreasonable and unrealistic.
In June, 97% of NCHDs voted for industrial action to take place, up to and including strike action. It appears little has changed since NCHDs sent on a one-day strike nine years ago, prompted by the expectation to regularly work beyond the set limit of more than 24 hours in a row, or 48 hours in a week.
IMO President Dr Clive Kilgallen has pointed to patient safety issues, including exhausted staff and unacceptable waiting lists, both of which present serious challenges to patient safety.
Poor morale and major problems with the recruitment and retention of doctors are factors which have added further to a crisis which continues to see young doctors leaving Ireland in droves.