Background: This paper draws from research completed in 2007 to assess the effect of the Department of Health, England, Code of Practice for the international recruitment of health professionals. The Department of Health in England introduced a Code of Practice for international recruitment for National Health Service employers in 2001. The Code required National Health Service employers not to actively recruit from low-income countries, unless there was government-to-government agreement. The Code was updated in 2004. Methods: The paper examines trends in inflow of health professionals to the United Kingdom from other countries, using professional registration data and data on applications for work permits. The paper also provides more detailed information from two country case studies in Ghana and Kenya. Results: Available data show a considerable reduction in inflow of health professionals, from the peak years up to 2002 (for nurses) and 2004 (for doctors). There are multiple causes for this decline, including declining demand in the United Kingdom. In Ghana and Kenya itwas found that active recruitment was perceived to have reduced significantly from the United Kingdom, but it is not clear the extent to which the Code was influential in this, or whether other factors such as a lack of vacancies in the United Kingdom explains it. Conclusion: Active international recruitment of health professionals was an explicit policy intervention by the Department of Health in England, as one key element in achieving rapid staffing growth, particularly in the period 2000 to 2005, but the level of international recruitment has dropped significantly since early 2006. Regulatory and education changes in the United Kingdom in recent years have also made international entry more difficult. The potential to assess the effect of the Code in England is constrained by the limitations in available databases. This is a crucial lesson for those considering a global code: without a clear link between explicit objectives of a code, and relevant monitoring capacity, it is not possible to judge the actual impact of a code. A second message for policy-makers is that attempts to use a single country code in other countries where there are a multiplicity of independent, private-sector health care employers, or where there is a federated political and regulatory structure, will be a much more challenging and complex issue than in England, which has one major public sector health care employer and one national point of entry for regulated health professionals. Finally, there is a message about the importance of the "visibility" of any recruitment code - for policy-makers, employers and potential recruits. The Department of Health Code has a good level of recognition in the National Health Service, but would benefit from better dissemination in low-income countries, particularly in Africa, together with further consultation on the appropriateness of its provisions in specific countries. To achieve high visibility and recognition of any global code will be a much bigger challenge. © 2009 Buchan et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd
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