Students from Hong Kong and other Asian countries who graduate in medicine from Australia's universities are helping overcome a critical shortage of doctors, especially in the country's rural areas. Research by associate professor Lesleyanne Hawthorne of Melbourne University found that just under half of Australia's medical workers are now overseas-born. Professor Hawthorne said other western countries were similarly becoming increasingly reliant on foreign students and overseas-born doctors. Although 1,300 international students were studying medicine in Australia, Professor Hawthorne said their role in helping meet the shortfall of doctors was rarely recognised. She said a high proportion of these students were ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Vietnam. The proportion of first generation migrants and refugees from these countries studying medicine was also far in excess of that from Anglo-Australian homes. As director of the international unit in the faculty of medicine at Melbourne, Professor Hawthorne said five years ago only a small number of overseas medical students had been appointed to hospital internships. Last year, after the government realised it faced a crisis, the proportion of students offered internships jumped to 60 per cent. It was not only the medical profession that had become heavily reliant on foreign students and overseas-born graduates: 48 per cent of engineers and computing professionals were born overseas, as were 36 per cent of architects, accountants and dentists. Foreign students who graduated in medicine had been fully self-supporting and trained in indigenous health and with rural as well as urban exposure. They were also willing to work wherever required. 'But for Australia, the problem of a shortage of doctors and nurses will not go away in the foreseeable future,' she said. 'There is the fundamental problem of the ageing population - and that includes the doctors and surgeons themselves. In a study of the Australian surgical workforce, we found that nearly 30 per cent of surgeons were over the age of 55 and 13 per cent were 65 or older.'