NHS at 70: ‘Asian doctors helped create the health service’

MILESTONE: Asian professionals reflect on history and future of the NHS as it turns 70 on Thursday (5)
MILESTONE: Asian professionals reflect on history and future of the NHS as it turns 70 on Thursday (5)


ASIAN doctors have not only contributed to the NHS by working in the health service but helped “create” it, an influential doctor has said as the public healthcare system celebrates its 70th anniversary on Thursday (5).

Professor Mayur Lakhani CBE, president of The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), told Eastern Eye that Asian doctors were “the architects” in underprivileged areas as they helped to set up general practice services for local communities.

“When Asian doctors initially came to the UK, they worked in areas where other local graduates did not want to go – like poor areas and where there weren’t general practices in places like Liverpool, Sunderland, Leicester and the Welsh valleys,” Professor Lakhani said.

“There is a great tradition of Asian doctors coming here and looking after families.”

Professor Mayur Lakhani is the president of The Royal College of General Practitioners

Professor Lakhani, who also works as a GP principal at Highgate Medical Centre in Loughborough, noted the dedication and hard work that overseas doctors had contributed to the NHS, and insisted it was not in their nature to ask for recognition.

“It is the Gandhian principles [they have],” Professor Lakhani said, referring to Indian icon Mahatma Gandhi, who is synonymous with selfless service for the greater good of everyone.

Professor Lakhani added that British people appreciate the idea of how much Asian medical professionals have become part of communities and how hard they work in difficult circumstances.

“It is remarkable,” he said. “At a time of the 70th anniversary, we should pay tribute to the work they have done. It is a proud moment.”

Britain initially appealed for overseas staff in the 1960s to support the health service and more than 18,000 doctors from the subcontinent arrived in Britain.

Dr Navnit Shah, a surgeon at the Royal National Throat, Nose & Ear Hospital in London, arrived in the UK from India in 1960 to take up a vacancy in ear, nose and throat surgery at a hospital in Kent.

Having worked in the NHS for many years, Dr Shah noted the service is now in a vastly different condition to previous generations.

Dr Navnit Shah arrived in the UK in 1960 to work as an ENT surgeon in Kent

He explained that as circumstances have changed, such as the high level of technology, costs and patients having longer life spans, the pressure on doctors has increased.

“The NHS is a wonderful thing in this country, but it has limitations,” Dr Shah told Eastern Eye. “We provide service as best we can but there is always still room for improvement.”

In April, around 100 doctors from India were told they would be unable to take up posts at the NHS as they were allegedly denied visas by the Home Office, despite reports the health service was under great strain.

However, the UK last month revised its visa rules to allow doctors from India to work in UK hospitals.

The government announced they would be lifting a cap on skilled worker visas for overseas doctors and nurses, meaning there will be no restriction on the numbers who can be employed through the Tier 2 visa system.

Home secretary Sajid Javid acknowledged the pressures faced by the health services in recent months, highlighting the “vital role” that doctors and nurses play in society.

“This is about finding a solution to increased demand and to support our essential national services,” Javid said at the time.

Dr Kailash Chand OBE, vice-president of the British Medical Association (BMA), told Eastern Eye he believed the NHS is dependent on international medical graduates to provide a high quality, reliable and safe service to patients.

Dr Kailash Chand is the vice-president of the British Medical Association

“They enrich the NHS with their skills, enthusiasm and diverse perspectives, and have become essential members of the UK’s medical workforce,” he said.

He added over one in three doctors presently working in the NHS have graduated outside of the UK. The NHS, he said, was built by immigrants and could not have survived in its current form without them.

Rohit Sagoo, the first British-born Asian to become a male children’s nurse, shared Dr Chand’s sentiments. He said the NHS needs migrant doctors.

“When you have a diverse workforce, you certainly get a mixture of abilities that you can really foster properly if you have the right management teams and the right kind of support,” he said.

Rohit Sagoo, founder of British Sikh Nurses, became the first British born Asian male children’s nurse in 1998

“We can have fantastic doctors from overseas – it is about working together.” Sagoo, who is also the founder of organisation British Sikh Nurses, also praised migrant medical professionals for their “innovative” contributions to the service.

“[Migrant medical professionals] have radicalised the way surgery is done in this country,” he said.

“From heart surgery to surgery for children, the practice is out of this world. They are so intelligent in what they do. It has made such a difference in terms of learning and teaching.”

Last month, prime minister Theresa May confirmed the government would set aside an extra £20.5 billion a year for the NHS by 2023.

The new funding means the £114bn budget will rise by an average of 3.4 per cent annually.

Dr Punam Krishan, a GP in Glasgow, told Eastern Eye she is “immensely proud” to be working for the NHS, but was aware there were more challenges in the future.

“I’m hopeful we can stop the NHS from crumbling further and help to restore its foundations once again,” she said.

Dr Punam Krishan works as a GP in Glasgow

“A lot of work needs to be done for sure to modernise the NHS to meet the pressures and demands of today’s society, but it is a gem we must fight and work for, for as long as we can.”

Dr Krishan, who grew up in a third generation British Indian family, was inspired to become a doctor by her own family GP, who was a “hardworking Pakistani GP who worked tirelessly for his community of patients”.

“I wanted to do what he did,” she said. “I wanted to help people get better and support them through their hardships in any way I could.”

On his proudest moment working in the NHS, Professor Lakhani recalled his first year as a junior doctor in 1983 when he was supporting a dying female patient in hospital.

“She said to me: ‘An Indian doctor brought me into this world and now an Indian doctor is helping me die peacefully’. That has always stuck in my mind,” he said.

“This happened in a rural part of the UK with an English white patient and yet it showed total acceptance. It shows we are truly engrained in the DNA of the NHS.”

According to recent NHS statistics, of every 1,000 NHS staff in England, 42 are from Asia.

Labour MP and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Eastern Eye he was aware of the “immense” contribution of doctors and nurses from South Asia.

“As we celebrate 70 years of the NHS, I am reminded how it has welcomed clinicians from across the world but especially the subcontinent to care for patients,” he said.

Dr Habib Naqvi, the policy lead at Workforce Race Equality Standard at NHS England, told Eastern Eye that ever since the health service was established in 1948, south Asian staff had made a “significant” contribution.

“The 70th anniversary of the NHS provides us with a wonderful opportunity to recognise the contribution that previous and current generations of migrants make to our health service,” Dr Naqvi said.