A staggering 43 percent of doctors completing community service in 2001 said that they were planning to work overseas once their service year was over. This is an increase of almost 10 percent from 1999.

Young white doctors were five times more likely to be planning to leave than African doctors, according to exit questionnaires processed by Dr Steve Reid and the health department.

Over half the white doctors and around 40 percent of Coloured and Indian doctors intended to work overseas, as opposed to only 10 percent of African doctors.

Graduates from Stellenbosch, the University of Cape Town and Free State were most likely to be packing their bags.

Some 42 percent of dentists completing the exit questionnaire also said they planned to leave, while 21 percent of pharmacists planned to leave the country and 52 percent planned to go into private practice.

However, the majority of those who completed their service said that they felt they had made a difference and that it had been worthwhile.

However, community service dentists were particularly frustrated by a lack of equipment, which meant that many could not perform basic tasks such as fitting dentures. Many were assigned to places that had never had dentists before, and felt lonely and isolated.

Inadequate supervision, particularly in rural areas, was identified as a major problem. A quarter of community service professionals based in rural areas said in their exit interviews that they had had no supervision at all.

This lack of supervision needs urgent attention, says Reid, particularly as from this year, newly qualified physiotherapists, occupational and speech therapists, clinical psychologists, dieticians and environmental health are also going to start a year’€™s service.

Recommending that community service be evaluated in five years’€™ time to see if it is achieving its aims, Reid said it was possible that the coercive nature of the service “actually defeats it’€™s own ends”.

“[Newly qualified health professionals] may assume that they have ‘€˜done their duty’€™ and compensated society for the cost of their studies after only one year’€¦ and it could be found to be one of the push factors in the current brain drain overseas,” said Reid. ‘€“ Health-e News Service.