Dentist Shaily Sharma spent years struggling to make ends meet when she moved to central Queensland from India, despite a decade of study and practical work in her home country.
- Dr Sharma spent more than three years getting accreditation to practice
- The federal government is examining ways to fast-track and support overseas-trained health practitioners
- The Australian Dental Association says the process needs to be streamlined
“I was making and cooking meals from home and delivering it to people’s houses, my husband was working in a shop and he wasn’t getting enough work,” Dr Sharma said.
“That was a daily mental struggle because, at the time, you doubt yourself.
“I was desperate to work in my field.”
According to the National Skills Commission’s skills priority list, there is a national shortage of dentists and dental assistants, but stories such as Dr Sharma’s are not unique.
Situations such as hers have prompted the Australian Dental Association to call for greater support for international health practitioners wanting to work in Australia.
What is the solution?
Dr Sharma said the healthcare worker shortage was not as acute when she moved to Gladstone in 2014.
“There were doctors, dentists everywhere but now it’s getting hard to see a specialist here,” she said.
“We do have overseas specialists who want to relocate to Australia but the process is tough.
“Something needs to be changed.”
The federal government is aware of the problem. In April it released its interim independent report into the regulation of overseas-trained health practitioners.
The report found for many, their registration and immigration were “slower, more complex and expensive in many instances” than other international countries, which discouraged people from coming to work in Australia.
The report included a range of suggestions, such as streamlining the application process, better recognising the experience and skills of workers, and aligning English language standards with the United Kingdom and New Zealand, as well as collecting better workforce data.
Calls to streamline process
In his submission to the review, Australian Dental Association president Stephen Liew said there was a higher proportion of dentists in cities, compared to regional and remote areas.
Dr Liew said that could make it challenging for people in regional and remote areas to access dental care.
“In select countries, we have mutual recognition, so those dentists can have their qualification recognised and recognised quite quickly,” he said.
Anyone not in a mutual recognition country needed to be assessed for Australian standards.
Dr Liew said, although that was a good thing, the process needed to be streamlined.
“While that’s very important … [the amount of people passing] is quite low and then the barriers, including cost and time, are considerable,” he said.
Pledge to ‘reduce red tape’
Health Minister Mark Butler said the review would also create better workforce planning and greater regulatory flexibility.
“Health ministers will work to progress a priority recommendation that can be implemented immediately, and report back to national cabinet with a fully costed implementation plan for the remaining recommendations,” Mr Butler said.
“We need to be very clear with patients and with the medical profession that we won’t compromise on our very strong standards that we have in Australia.
“But there are things we can do to reduce red tape.”
Mr Butler said the federal government, alongside other state and territory health ministers, was committed to ensuring qualified health practitioners “don’t spend months languishing” when they could be working.
The report has also suggested adding health into the free trade agreement negotiations with India, to improve professional qualification recognition, and better support the two-way movement of workers.
Dr Sharma passed her final practical exam for her registration in 2017.
Sitting in her newly built home in Gladstone, she was proud of how far her family had come.
“We just had to be very resilient and very focused,” she said.
Despite the challenges, she said she would still recommend Australia and urged other healthcare workers to consider working regionally to fill employment gaps.
“I’m very, very glad we chose Australia,” Dr Sharma said.
“In Delhi, you go to the office at nine, you come back at seven … sometimes you have to work on the weekends.
“Here in Australia I feel like people … everyone has that balance between work and life and I really appreciate and like that.”