More Singapore docs trained abroad are coming home

Incentives like pre-employment grants and push factors in UK helping to lure some back

Dr Edmund Neo, 26, was among those who took up a pre-employment grant in 2013 and returned home in September last year, after he graduated from King's College London. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

More overseas-trained Singaporean medical graduates are returning home to work.

There are now 978 Singaporeans working in the public sector who trained overseas, according to the Singapore Medical Council's (SMC) 2014 annual report, its most recent.

This is a rise of 40 per cent from 2011, when there were just 686.

In 2014, 181 pre-employment grants were given to medical students - about three times the number offered in 2010 when the grant was introduced, according to the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Since 2010, a total of 615 pre-employment grants have been awarded as of March last year.

The incentive was introduced to woo Singaporean medical students studying overseas to practise in Singapore. Any student in his final two or three years of studies at an overseas medical school recognised by the SMC can apply for the grant. Most medical courses are between four and six years.

The grant covers up to 60 per cent of tuition fees, up to a limit of $50,000 a year. In return, the students must commit to serving in public hospitals for up to three years.

Dr Edmund Neo, 26, was among those who took up a pre-employment grant in 2013 and returned home in September last year, after he graduated from King's College London. Dr Neo, who is now a house officer at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, said: "I've completed clinical attachments in Britain but decided that I wanted to come back home to work because my friends and family are here.

"I also aim to specialise in Singapore so I wanted to be able to understand the local context better."

The flagging morale among junior doctors in Britain has also persuaded some overseas-trained Singapore medical students to come back home after graduation.

Over the past five months, junior doctors in Britain have been locked in a dispute with the authorities over proposed changes to their contract that, they say, will cut their salaries by up to 30 per cent. They would also be required to work longer hours.

Last month, about 40,000 of them went on strike for the first time in 40 years, with a second strike planned for Wednesday.

This has deterred Singaporean medical students like Ms Lim Wei Che, 23 - who is now in her fifth year at University College London - from working in Britain in the long term. She said: "The pay there wasn't great to begin with, and now, they are reducing it, on top of increasing the number of hours at work. It's quite unfair."

The rise in the number of overseas-trained medical graduates returning to work in Singapore comes even as universities here ramp up their intake of medical students to deal with a shortage of doctors in the public hospitals.

In November last year, The Straits Times reported that more than one in four doctors working in the public sector are foreigners.

There are three medical schools in Singapore: NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; Duke-NUS Medical School; and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. The total local medical intake has gone up by 29 per cent, from 350 in 2012 to 460 last year. MOH plans to eventually grow the local intake to 500.

However, not all overseas-trained Singaporean medical students are intending to return home, even if there are financial incentives like the pre-employment grants.

Despite the shortage of medical internships for international students in Australia, Mr Kenn Choo, 27, has set his mind on working there. The internship is a mandatory requirement for those intending to qualify as a doctor in Australia.

Mr Choo, who recently graduated with a medical degree from the University of Sydney, joined a scheme called the Commonwealth Medical Internship. It guarantees him a year-long internship at a private hospital in Australia, in exchange for serving a bond of 48 weeks in rural Australia. The bond needs to be served within five years from the start of the internship.

"I've completed an observational internship at Singapore General Hospital to understand the Singapore healthcare system, but I've built a life I'm comfortable with here, and financial incentives are not the be-all and end-all," said Mr Choo, who is currently serving the year-long internship in Australia.

Correction note: An earlier version of this article stated that Mr Kenn Choo would have to serve a bond of five years in Australia in exchange for an internship, when he will actually have to serve a bond of 48 weeks within five years from the start of his internship. The article has been edited to reflect the accurate information.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2016, with the headline More Singapore docs trained abroad are coming home. Subscribe