Overseas doctors will still be able to apply for temporary work visas under tighter new visa arrangements announced this week, although details remain murky.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the scrapping of the 457 foreign worker visa system, to be replaced with a more restrictive two-year visa that doesn’t allow for eventual permanent residency.
A second visa class, focused on strategic, long-term skills gaps, will have a four-year limit and will require higher standards for English language proficiency as well as mandatory labour market testing.
The number of job categories eligible for a foreign worker visa will also be reduced from the current 650 to 200.
Although foreign doctors remain eligible for these visas, many healthcare sector categories have been removed. These include medical administrators, nurse researchers, operating theatre technicians, pathology collectors, mothercraft nurses, first aid trainers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers and exercise physiologists.
Doctors who are currently on 457 foreign worker visas will not be affected by the new restrictions, the government has said.
The announced changes have so far met with a mixed response from healthcare stakeholders.
Alison Verhoeven, CEO of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, said that neither she nor her organisation was consulted over the changes.
“Consultation with the sector is important so that the government actually understands the impact of the decision and the capacity to plan for change and be able to respond to it,” she said.
She added that the key issue was to be able to have healthcare staff right across the country, including rural and regional areas.
“I would suggest there aren’t people available in rural areas where 457 visas are being used,” she said.
The point was underscored by David Butt, CEO of the Rural Health Alliance, who warned that the changes could have an immediate impact on recruitment of healthcare workers in rural Australia.
Meanwhile the CEO of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Peta Rutherford, said “the devil would be in the detail” of the overhauled visa arrangements.
She noted that many rural communities would have no doctors working in them if it wasn’t for foreign doctors on 457 visas.
But the AMA has said it “cautiously welcomes” the changes, although it is seeking more detail and clarification of the possible impact on medical workforce changes.
The AMA says that although it has been advised doctors will still be eligible for the new visa, there is as yet little detail about medical specialties or groups.
AMA President Dr Michael Gannon says international medical graduates have made a huge contribution, but Australia currently has an “oversupply” of local medical graduates.
He says what needs to happen is that the “potentially thousands of extra doctors that we’ve got are deployed in areas where we need them”.
“The AMA is calling for a third of all medical students to come from rural areas,” he told Sky News.
“We want to see more positive experiences for junior doctors and medical students when they go to the regions. We know from evidence that that means they’re more likely to go and work in the bush later.”
Last year, 8242 foreign worker 457 visas were granted for the healthcare sector, with doctors among the largest applicant categories.