International migration of health labour: monitoring the two-way flow of physicians in South Africa



Tankwanchi AS, Hagopian A, Vermund SH.


BMJ Glob Health. 2019 Sep 11;4(5):e001566. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2019-001566. 2019.


INTRODUCTION: Although health labour migration is a global phenomenon, studies have neglected the flow of health workers into low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs). In compliance with the data-monitoring recommendation of the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel (Code), we estimated post-Code physician net migration (NM) in South Africa (SA), and SA’s net loss of physicians to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries from 2010 to 2014. METHODS: We sourced data from the National Reporting Instrument reports, the OECD and the General Medical Council. Using the numbers of foreign nationals and international medical graduates (IMGs) registered in SA, and SA medical graduates registered in OECD countries (South African-trained international medical graduates (SA-IMGs)) as respective proxies for immigration and emigration, we estimated ‘NM’ as the difference between immigrant physicians and emigrant physicians and ‘net loss’ as the difference between OECD-trained IMGs and OECD-based SA-IMGs. RESULTS: In 2010, SA hosted 8443 immigrant physicians, while OECD countries hosted 14 933 SA-IMGs, yielding a NM of -6490 physicians and a NM rate of -18% in SA. By 2014, SA-based immigrant physicians had increased by 4%, while SA-IMGs had decreased by -15%, halving the NM rate to -9%. SA-to-OECD estimated net loss of physicians dropped from -12 739 physicians in 2010 to -10 563 in 2014. IMGs represented 46% of 2010-2014 new registrations in SA, with the UK, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo serving as leading sources. Registrants from conflict-scarred Libya increased >100-fold. More than 3400 SA-IMGs exited OECD-based workforces. CONCLUSION: NM is a better measure of the brain drain than simply the emigration fraction. Strengthened health personnel data management and reporting through implementation of the Code-related system of National Health Workforce Accounts will further increase our understanding of health worker mobility in LMICs, with policymakers empowered to make more informed policies to address shortage. CI – © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2019. Re-use permitted under CC BY-NC. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ.

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Link/DOI: 10.1136/bmjgh-2019-001566