Subscriber OnlyUkraine Anniversary

‘English is the biggest barrier’ - Ukrainian doctors shut out of working in the Irish healthcare system

Hundreds, if not thousands, of doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals face a long road before they can work in their chosen field

Many of the 100,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Ireland since the war began two years ago left behind them good careers in their own country.

Among them are hundreds, if not thousands, of doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals who are now living in a country with acute shortages in the medical profession.

Yet their qualifications are not recognised and they face a long road before they can work in their chosen field.

To date, just one has navigated the stringent Professional Registration Examination System (PRES) route that the Irish Medical Council has set out for those Ukrainian doctors who wish to work in the Irish healthcare system.


Dr Polina Smolovyk (27), who is originally from Ivano-Frankivsk in central Ukraine, qualified as a doctor in Kyiv in 2019. She moved to Ireland in April 2022 as her English is very good. “I didn’t even know the rules,” she recalls when it came to practising in Ireland.

“It was very difficult at the beginning. I wanted to go home and I hoped the situation would change. Now I know the war won’t be finished anytime soon.”

She describes Ireland as a “wonderland” and a place where her host family in Sandymount have looked after her and her mother very well. “There is only one problem with Ireland,” she stresses, “it is not Ukraine. Homesickness for me is a huge thing.”

Like many Ukrainian refugees, she now realises for better or ill that her future for the time being is in Ireland, which means qualifying and practising as a doctor in the country. “I don’t know how long it will take me. I’m in the middle of it,” she said. She has already completed an examination in English proficiency and is awaiting the results of her first medical exam.

“If I could practise here I would be able to do something that I am qualified and trained to do. I would be developing my skills and I could help the people of Ireland and the people of Ukraine who came here for shelter. My passion is practical medicine,” she said.

All going well, she hopes this summer to become part of a mentoring scheme run by the Irish Medical Council to work under supervision as a doctor. In the meantime, she works full-time in the UCD Clinical Research Centre on clinical trials in infectious diseases.

There are hundreds of Ukrainian doctors in the same situation as Dr Smolovyk. Dr Andrii Matvieiev (46) is part of two Telegram groups. The first is a group of 200 Ukrainian doctors living in Ireland; the other a similar number of healthcare professionals.

“No one yet,” he said in response to a question as to how many Ukrainian doctors he knows are able to practise in Ireland, but he acknowledges the difficulties involved. “The educational system for doctors is totally different in Ukraine,” he says.

In Ireland, doctors have to pass an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) which is very tough especially for those who do not have proficiency in the language. “English is the biggest barrier,” he said. This is followed by two examinations, one theoretical and another practical.

He has advised his fellow compatriots who work in the medical profession to be patient and to build their lives in Ireland.

Dr Matvieiev came to Ireland before the invasion as an asylum seeker and has been living here for four years. He is a specialist colorectal surgeon who is currently working as a healthcare assistant.

He is clearly overqualified for the role, but says he earns far more in wages as a healthcare assistant in Ireland than he does as a consultant surgeon in Ukraine. “It is a shame, but it is true. I have twice as much money here,” he said. A public doctor earns about €400 a month in Ukraine, a private doctor between €1,000 and €3,000 a month. The cost of living is obviously cheaper but now Ukrainians have the worst of both worlds with low wages and high prices, he says.

He believes Ukrainian doctors should be able to treat Ukrainian patients and ease the strain on Irish doctors. Ukrainians are used to a higher level of healthcare and typically only have to wait an hour before being seen in a casualty department. “In Ukraine we are very spoilt,” he said.

Speaking to the community, he says the majority of Ukrainians in Ireland have post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the war. Many of them need psychological counselling, but again language is a barrier.

The Irish Medical Council says it is “dedicated to facilitating the registration and integration of Ukrainian doctors seeking to practise in Ireland”.

To date, 280 Ukrainian doctors have signed up with NDTP HSE (National Doctors Training and Planning) which gives them access to relevant courses.

Fifty Ukrainian doctors have submitted applications for registration through the professional registration examination system route, yet to date just one is now cleared to practise.

Medical Council spokeswoman Jo Twamley said one of the biggest challenges faced in completing the medical registration process is the “low levels of English fluency, and dedicated supports have been put in place to support these doctors”.

She described the medical council’s commitment to Ukrainian doctors is part of Ireland’s “broader commitment to offering refuge and professional opportunities to those affected by the crisis in Ukraine”.

  • See our new project Common Ground, Evolving Islands: Ireland & Britain
  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here