THE NHS is planning to entice more foreign doctors to Scotland in a bid to plug staffing gaps in under-pressure hospital departments.

In a speech to NHS staff at a major conference in Glasgow, Health Secretary Alex Neil said he wanted to make Scotland the most attractive place in the world for junior doctors to build their medical careers.

He later added that tempting more foreign doctors and medical students to Scotland would ease pressure in accident and emergency departments, which have struggled to attract or retain staff, largely because of heavy workloads and antisocial hours.

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Speaking at the NHS Scotland ­conference at the SECC yesterday, Mr Neil announced that from August this year, NHS Education for Scotland (NES) will act as the single sponsor for visas for junior medical staff from outside Europe, "reducing the financial and administrative burden on doctors and their families". The change will mean NES, rather than health boards, will act as employers, in a bid to simplify and speed up the immigration process.

He said he was "not fussy" about where workers come from, if they had appropriate language and medical skills, and that introducing more staff to the stretched departments would "breed success" as they became more attractive places to work.

Mr Neil added: "I have asked my ­Scottish Government colleagues to work with NES, in partnership with the Scottish Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the NHS boards, to develop further proposals to increase the attractiveness of medical training in Scotland - not to make it as attractive as elsewhere but to make it more attractive than anywhere else in the world."

However, Mr Neil came under attack from opposition MSPs for claiming that Scotland had been handed an advantage over the rest of the UK in attracting staff as a result of the Westminster Government's health reforms. Mr Neil hit out at the "Americanisation" of the NHS south of the Border, where an increasing number of private firms have been handed contracts to deliver NHS services, vowing that the NHS in Scotland would continue to be publicly owned and controlled and that a "profit motive" would not be introduced.

The British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland responded by saying "relentless" pressure meant many doctors were looking abroad for alternative career options and more needed to be done to keep them in Scotland.

Mr Neil cited the example of St John's Hospital in Livingston - which has attracted Burmese doctors to work in its paediatric ward following a global recruitment campaign that involved advertising in medical journals, establishing a website and hiring specialist recruitment agencies - as an approach that could be replicated.

While two Burmese doctors are now in post in the department, the process was beset with difficulties after interviews over the internet were hit by technical problems and delays were caused by visa issues. Four Burmese doctors were initially offered roles by NHS Lothian, although two were later withdrawn after they failed an English test.

A spokeswoman for the BMA said it was becoming increasingly difficult to attract junior doctors to hospitals and GP practices in Scotland.

"For many doctors already working in Scotland, the relentless pressure on their workload means they feel stressed and many are looking overseas for alternative career options.

"We need to attract doctors to train and work in Scotland, but we also need to keep them here."

Tory health spokesman Jackson Carlaw accused Mr Neil, who last month survived a rare vote of no confidence at Holyrood, of "hyperbole" in drawing comparisons between the NHS in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.

He added: "Perhaps instead of ridiculous assertions of queues of doctors seeking refugee status in Scotland he could explain why the ratio of GPs to patients in Scotland has dramatically declined? While he is at it he could also try and explain why so many consultants' posts remain unfilled for so long."