Overseas-trained doctor prepared to hunger strike

Kuwaiti-born doctor Ghaleb Jaber. Photo: Sue Bolton

Kuwaiti-born doctor Ghaleb Jaber is prepared to follow in the footsteps of overseas-trained doctors (OTDs) who went on hunger strike in 1997 in Sydney and Melbourne to fight for their rights.

Jaber set up the Overseas Trained Doctors Network of Victoria five years ago. This network is organising a conference on July 26 to raise the issues facing overseas-trained doctors in the lead up to the federal election.

“We want them to listen to us this time,” Jaber told Green Left Weekly.

A parliamentary report titled “Lost in the Labyrinth” was released last year. Jaber says that the recommendations “don’t go far enough”, but the government needs to “immediately implement the recommendations because they would be a big help.”

“The crucial issue for overseas-trained doctors is jobs,” said Jaber.

Overseas-trained doctors face conflicting information, he said. A report from the Centre for Population and Urban Research said there are too many doctors in Australia.

“If that’s true,” Jaber said, “why does the medical council open overseas centres to attract more foreign doctors? There is misleading information to keep a flow of foreign doctors. OTDs are lured here. They want to attract OTDs to come to pay money but there’s no job for them.”

The minimum cost of registration is $6000.

Once an overseas trained doctor arrives, “there’s no system”, said Jaber. “That means doctors do all sorts of menial jobs to support themselves.

“All overseas-trained doctors are concerned about a job.”

In order to complete medical registration, it is compulsory to do a 12-month hospital job after completing the registration exams. This is where discrimination against OTDs takes place, said Jaber.

Hospitals usually don’t respond to applications from overseas-trained doctors or else tell them that the jobs have to go to local interns.

“The impact of the unemployment among the doctors is huge — loss of income, financial constraints, and credit card debts, ill health and depression which affects their families as well,” said Jaber

The Department of Health has a computer matched program for local graduates. “We want the department to have a similar process for OTDs.”

One of the key recommendations in “Lost in the Labyrinth” is to review the exam and the English language test.

The registration process requires OTDs to do the English test at the end of the process after the clinical exam.

This is different to university courses where the English test is taken at the beginning to test students’ understanding of the course.

“The process is the wrong way around [for doctors],” said Jaber. “You should do the English test before the clinical exam because clinical work requires good communication.

“The big problem with the English test is that if you don’t get a job, the English test is only valid for two years. Overseas-trained doctors have to keep re-sitting the English test every two years until they get a job. It costs $650 each time you do the test.”

Jaber described the registration system with the denial of jobs to OTDs as a form of “modern slavery, which is controlled by restrictive closed shops that no one can enter.”

Jaber said the Department of Health has changed the title of overseas-trained doctor to International Medical Graduate (IMG) to give the impression that OTDs don’t have experience. And yet, for the Medical Board, OTDs have to show everything about their work experience as a doctor.

“This can be difficult, especially as many of these doctors come from war-torn counties so you can’t get your papers from your hospital or university, or it can take more than two years to get your papers,” he said.

When OTDs apply for jobs, the gaps in practice go against them. Jaber said the medical board always looks at gaps negatively and don’t look at the fact that it takes at least three years to complete registration before doctors can practice.

There is also the issue of exploitation. One OTD worked in a regional New South Wales for three years without a break. He asked for one week off to visit his sick mother and was sacked.

Jaber graduated in 1981 in Egypt. He has 15 years experience working as a gynaecologist and obstetrician in Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Yemen.
As a student in Kuwait, he was the chair of the Kuwait Student Union. Later, he was active in the Kuwait Medical Association. He was involved in the pro-democracy movement and took a stand against the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran when many doctors were pro Iraq.

Jaber wrote articles criticising the government and was arrested.

When living in New Zealand, Jaber completed a degree in health administration and established an overseas-trained doctors organisation to achieve reforms.

After coming to Australia, Jaber has been a medical educator and examiner. Jaber started the network of OTDs five years ago to support overseas-trained doctors at different stages of registration. He organises educational programs on weekends to keep them up to date with rapid changes in medicine.

The group's aim is to have a strong organisation to “voice our concerns to the government and to be involved in any change in policies.”

“All OTDs appreciate being in Australia and want to use their skills from the profession they trained in,” said Jaber.

The Overseas Trained Doctors Network is organising a conference on July 26 at Coburg Town Hall.