Health bosses are to travel thousands of miles across the world in an attempt to recruit nurses to ease the staffing crisis in north-east hospitals.
NHS Grampian plans to send a delegation of four board members to recruitment events in Australia, at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer.
It said it hoped despatching senior staff “may prove better value for money” than using employment agencies to find urgently-needed medical staff for the region and the rest of Scotland.
But a patient group questioned why so many senior figures needed to take part at the same time as the board is seeking £27.2million budget savings
And critics said the deep personnel crisis – the worst in the country – was the fault of the Scottish Government and it should foot the bill.
News of the Aussie venture emerged just days after the health board confirmed patients requiring potentially life-saving heart surgery were being offered treatment in Newcastle because of lengthy waiting lists.
It was inspired by changes to the Australian visa system which mean uncertainty for many UK emigrant workers who may now consider returning home.
Putting on pitches at the events alone will cost around £20,000 – with travel, accommodation and other expenses adding significantly more to the overall outlay.
The delegation – which will first travel to Melbourne and then Brisbane, Sydney and Perth – will also visit hospitals to learn more about their health service model and what aspects could be copied in the north-east.
The group consists of the head of human resources, the deputy director of nursing and midwifery, an associate nurse director and the senior nurse for workforce planning and development.
Professor Jamie Weir, of the Patient Action Co-ordination Team (PACT), blamed the Scottish Government for forcing the board’s hand.
He said it was “reasonable” for bosses to target Australia but said the government should foot the bill for the trip as it was “entirely responsible” for the current situation.
However, a well-placed source said board management had to accept some of the responsibility for failing to address many of the issues that had led to a number of well-qualified nurses quitting.
The source, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It’s unbelievable, it’s just a reflection of the terrible situation within the operating theatres that they can’t retain good staff.
“A number of excellent nurses that were here have left because they can’t stand the management style, it’s become a terribly unpleasant place to work.”
The board has said it has to consider “new and creative” ways to recruit staff.
A spokeswoman said: “We are the only representative of NHS Scotland attending these events and we are there first and foremost to recruit for NHS Grampian. However, we know other Scottish boards are seriously considering international recruitment and the learning from this trip will be shared with them.
“We have used recruitment agencies overseas previously. This is an extremely expensive option and attending a number of events over a comparatively short period of time may prove to be better value for money.”
The Scottish government has said the board’s recruitment initiatives closer to home have been hampered by uncertainty brought about by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
A spokeswoman said: “Unfortunately the UK government’s actions on immigration, and the dangers presented by Brexit to finding staff from Europe, means our NHS is facing unnecessary barriers to finding staff.
“With health boards we’re taking a range of actions to support recruitment in remote and rural areas, including from abroad, and also to encourage those who have previously trained in or worked for our NHS to return and work in the health service.”