Refugee doctor keen, but unable, to join coronavirus fight

Tamer Antakly’s medical specialty is the lungs — an organ among the most vulnerable to coronavirus.

Key points:

  • Refugees and migrants are among those who’ve put their hands up to join the coronavirus resistance
  • Agencies are compiling a database of internationally registered health professionals in Australia
  • The Medical Board of Australia says it needs to balance unprecedented demand with safety precautions

With more than three decades of experience, he’s humble when he notes he could be “useful” in Australian hospitals battling a deadly pandemic.

But he can’t work in them.

The 58-year-old Syrian refugee, his wife and two daughters moved to Australia on humanitarian visas in 2015.

He has since passed all of his medical requirements to practise as a local doctor, but the final step to qualification — an English language exam — has been deferred because of the coronavirus outbreak.

It is a cruel irony, given he now wants to fast-track the last part of his qualification process in order to be a part of Australia’s coronavirus response.

“I would be very happy to help in the fight against this terrible disease,” he said.

“Being able to help would give me a feeling of satisfaction in contributing to this country which has given my family safety.”

Refugee and migrant support agencies are currently working across Australia to compile a database of refugees and migrants internationally registered as health professionals, who want to join the coronavirus resistance.

New South Wales-based refugee and migrant support agency Settlement Services International has identified more than 110 refugees who are internationally trained in fields like medicine, nursing and pharmacy.

Victorian group AMES Australia said there were almost 40 refugee pharmacists, doctors and dentists who were in the process of being accredited in Australia.

AMES Australia CEO Cath Scarth said the refugees and migrants didn’t necessarily have to practise their medical specialties, and could be used for other important jobs like translating between doctors and culturally diverse patients.

“There would be a lot of other roles at the moment they could be usefully doing,” she said.

“They’re very keen to help fight this disease as well as very keen to contribute to the community that has provided them with safety.”

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Medical watchdog considering the issue

The Medical Board of Australia is currently examining how to utilise the skills of doctors like Dr Antakly.

It needs to balance the unprecedented pressures of the coronavirus pandemic with the safety of Australians.

“The board has made a series of pragmatic decisions to boost the medical workforce and ease administrative demands on health services, while maintaining patient safety,” Medical Board chair Anne Tonkin said earlier this week.

The board said it was aware coronavirus had disrupted testing.

Your questions on coronavirus answered:

Where people had received all other qualifications but were unable to sit the English exam, it said it was looking at alternative ways they could demonstrate their language skills to ensure they were safe to practice in Australia.

It has also already created increased flexibility for international medical graduates in the health system, allowing international doctors under supervision to be redeployed to other supervisors within hospitals without formal approval from the board.

The board is not considering changing the threshold for doctors from overseas to be assessed for registration in Australia.

Fears sector could be overwhelmed

The Federal Government has been forced to consider several options to bolster the medical frontline, amid fears Australia’s healthcare sector could be overwhelmed if the outbreak rapidly escalates.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency this week announced more than 40,000 former doctors, nurses, midwives and pharmacists whose registration had lapsed in the past three years would be eligible to apply for work from next Monday.

In the UK and Canada, there have been similar calls for doctors from refugee backgrounds to be included in the coronavirus response.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Home Affairs said while refugees worked towards their registered requirements, they were still able to work in other health care roles.

That’s something Dr Antakly is happy to do.

“No problem,” he said.

“I’m very enthusiastic and could contribute to the country.”

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