These refugee doctors couldn't join Australia's coronavirus frontline because they're from overseas

In Refugee Week, medically skilled refugees and resettlement organisations are speaking out about the lengthy and costly process new arrivals have to go through to get their qualifications recognised in Australia. But It's the same requirement for all migrants, says the industry.

Noor Khokaz

Since arriving in Australia, Noor Khokaz hasn’t been able to continue her career in medicine. Source: Supplied

Noor Khokaz’s area of interest is general medicine and helping sick patients get back on a path to good health. 

But since fleeing Iraq and arriving in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2017, she hasn’t been able to pursue her passion and is instead working as an injury management advisor. 

“I have a medical background … it’s very disheartening,” the 30-year-old told SBS News. 

After graduating from medical school in Iraq in 2014, she spent the next three years as a refugee in Turkey before being accepted into Australia. Ms Khokaz said she feels those were wasted years.

“I was not allowed to practice in Turkey as a refugee. The bigger the gap you have in your experience, it starts to become harder to get a job.” 

After arriving in Australia, Ms Khokaz started on a path to securing her medical license.  

“Getting a license here, it is not as easy as most people think,” she said. 

There are three examination elements that all migrant doctors must complete before they are able to secure a job and get their license.

Even though the qualification process can be lengthy, Dr Chris Moy said it is reasonable.
Source: E+

Ms Khokaz has successfully completed two of them and said the process is long and costly, particularly for people like herself who are still finding their feet in a new country. 

For the first examination, Ms Khokaz spent one year studying and forked out $2,720 to sit the test. That was followed by an English exam which took another year of preparation and cost $500, and then a clinical exam which Ms Khokaz spent six months preparing for and paid $3,530.

Unfortunately, Ms Khokaz failed the clinical exam and now needs to take it again with an exam time yet to be scheduled. 

“Because of COVID-19, all exams have been suspended until further notice,” she said.  

“It makes you a little bit depressed … It’s very emotional and it's causing some upset because I have tried to study a lot, but I still have some hope that someday I can practice medicine.”

Ms Khokaz’s story is not an isolated one. 

Figures released by Settlement Services International (SSI) show in its Refugee Employment Support Program, 110 refugees are internationally trained as medical professionals but do not hold licenses to practice in Australia.

SSI also said that through its broader affiliations, another 2,000 overseas trained doctors (OTDs) are finding it difficult to attain their licenses and find employment. 

Kylie van Luyn, the employment services and social enterprise director at SSI, said all the internationally qualified doctors are eager to start working in their areas of expertise.

“They are all really keen to get into work, especially those with tertiary qualifications overseas, they really want to pick up where they left off.”

Local work experience requirement a concern

Ms Luyn said many newly arrived medical professionals from overseas also face another common struggle. 

“After they’re qualified and certified, the next biggest barrier for them is actually securing employment and some of the barriers linked to that are that they haven't established professional networks,” she said. 

Dr Ahamad Alrubaie, who is also from Iraq, is one of many refugees to have gone through the process. 

Dr Ahamad Alrubaie is one of many refugees to have successfully received his medical license.
Source: Supplied

Although it took Mr Alrubaie just under two years to get his license, he said it can take “on average two years” and in “some circumstances up to five years”. 

Despite supporting the pathway, Dr Alrubaie reiterated Ms Luyn's views about employment. 

“The issue is after the process and getting a chance to be employed because there is this condition of having local recent practice or training,” he said. “It is a very difficult requirement.”

As a gastroenterologist, Dr Alrubaie hasn’t been working on the frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic but said he knows of many OTDs who wanted to help Australians through the health crisis. 

“There are several decades of experience with some overseas trained doctors, it is proven that they have a significant contribution to the medical system and medical market,” he said. 

Through the Iraqi Australasian Medical Association, Dr Alrubaie attempted to fast-track OTDs to be able to contribute to Australia's response to COVID-19 and have their bridging qualifications expedited. 

“For the coronavirus, we applied to the medical board saying that we want to help by expediting the registration of those doctors who finished their exams and fulfilled the criteria …  and to involve them in the battle against coronavirus,” he said. 

'They have to tick all of the boxes'

While recognising that Australia must continue to encourage refugees to acquire their medical licenses, there are still a number of standards that must be met, said Dr Chris Moy, chair of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee. 

“I think it would be fantastic if we had doctors in Australia that are going to be helpful, particularly in areas of need, especially where we see gaps, to be able to utilise their skills and resources if they are willing to offer them,” he said.

Even though the process can be lengthy, it remains reasonable, Dr Moy said, and it is the same length with the same requirements for all refugees and migrants from all countries. 

He emphasised the four elements that all doctors in Australia must understand and implement during their practice. 

“It’s communication, it’s understanding culture and values, it’s understanding what the standard of medical care is, and finally, making sure they understand the system,” he said. 

“They have to tick off all the boxes otherwise it is very hard for them to provide care.” 

NSW Health says it is aware of OTDs in Australia who do not currently have work and said it encourages them to involve themselves in the continuing COVID-19 efforts.  

“As part of the COVID-19 response in NSW, overseas trained doctors are able to register their interest to work in the pandemic medical workforce,” a spokesperson for NSW Health said. 

While refugees and migrants continue to work towards relevant registration requirements to join the frontline response, OTDs are still able to work in other areas of the health sector.

“Overseas trained doctors are also eligible to apply for and work in other roles that do not require medical or other registration,” the spokesperson said.  

SSI says it is doing what it can to help OTDs find work. 

“We work very closely with our employment partners and a lot of those include hospitals, including NSW Health,” Ms Luyn said. 

She said SSI is working towards getting all its program participants into the workforce, with additional training in areas including English and writing. 

Refugee Week aims to raise awareness of the issues affecting refugees and is marked 14-20 June. 

Published 17 June 2020 at 8:11am
By Brooke Fryer