Canada HealthCare Blog

British doctors seek jobs abroad amid discontent over NHS pay

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Audio Transcript

Kristen Schwab:
This is Marketplace, I'm Kristen Schwab. The number of workers in the US that went on strike in 2023 more than doubled from the year before. That's according to a report from the Labor Action Tracker, a collaboration from researchers at Cornell and the University of Illinois.

And we're not the only country that's seen an uptick in labor disputes. Last year in the UK, train drivers, postal workers, and teachers walked off the job. And this coming Saturday, thousands of doctors who work for the National Health Service, that's England's publicly funded health care system, they're going on strike again over pay. The BBC's Elizabeth Hotson has more.

Elizabeth Hotson:
The National Health Service in the UK is famous around the world for being free at the point of delivery. It's funded through general taxation, and although you can pay to be treated privately, most Brits still rely on and value the NHS, including US-born actor Rob Delaney, who lives in London. He's been supporting the doctors strikes.

Rob Delaney:
I love the NHS and I love its workers and my family's benefited massively from it. Most of my life was spent getting health care in the United States, you know, with a really horrible barrier of private health insurance in between me and my family's care.

Elizabeth Hotson:
British doctors are angry they're being made to work long hours for what they say is inadequate work pay. Dr. Kirsten Selleck, a striking medical resident, explains why.

Dr. Kirsten Selleck:
I wasn't earning enough to start paying off my student loan, I didn't reach the minimum threshold to pay off my student loan, that's how little I learn as a 40-hour-a-week doctor which is part-time.

Elizabeth Hotson:
Pay does increase the more years of training you complete, but even when you're at consultant or attending level, you'll still only earn an average of $180,000 a year. That's far less than in the United States, in some cases, under half the pay of equivalent US doctors.

Dr. Shewin Ahmed is from the UK, but now lives and works in America. On her YouTube channel, Dr Ahmed talks about the salary differences.

Dr. Shewin Ahmed:
In the US, the average length of a residency programme is around three to five years. Whereas in the UK, when you finish medical school, the average length of training for a junior doctor is between five to ten years.

Elizabeth Hotson:
Even as consultants, she says they make two or three times less than they would in the US.

But the UK government says NHS doctors aren't being reasonable. Here, it's taxpayers who are paying their wages. The government points out medical residents have already received an average pay rise of nine percent this financial year.

They're now offering them a further three percent. The doctors aren't happy. Some are now turning their sights to Canada. Canada has a similar free-to-all health system, publicly funded by the federal government and partly by each local province.

Phil Martin, who's based in British Columbia, is the CEO of Physicians For You, which recruits doctors from abroad for jobs there. He says he's never been busier, and the route to Canada has never been easier.

Phil Martin:
You can now actually get your full licence without actually even getting into the country, which you never could before. You'd have to sit multiple exams to do that. Also, they've removed supervision in some of the provinces as well, with sort of limited doctors where they could work.

Elizabeth Hotson:
One of the doctors Martin's helped is family physician Dr. Ali Brice, who also works in British Columbia. He says, as well as better pay and less pressure than the NHS offered, he also wanted a different lifestyle.

Dr. Ali Brice:
We wanted to go somewhere where we could enjoy the hobbies that we enjoy, and Canada had a lot of that with snow sports and outdoor hiking, and just space, really.

Elizabeth Hotson:
A recent survey by the Doctors' Union, the British Medical Association, suggests four in ten doctors are planning to leave the NHS and work abroad.

The UK government says there's no money available to increase the salaries of British doctors, but they might have to find some more cash, or risk an ever greater exodus abroad. In London, I'm the BBC's Elizabeth Hotson for Marketplace. 

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