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Immigration reform critical for U.S. healthcare system


Friday, August 5, 2016

The United States healthcare sector is rapidly approaching a crisis-level labor shortfall. A fast-growing segment of the economy, healthcare generates trillions of dollars in annual revenue while providing millions of U.S. jobs. The problem is that there currently aren’t enough qualified workers to fill openings in this booming industry… and the shortfall is only going to get worse.
 
The retirement of Baby Boomers will be particularly challenging for the sector. Not only will the aging population strain existing healthcare resources, but as many as one-third of the physicians working in the U.S. are from the same age group and will, themselves, retire. 
 
Currently, too few native-born students are entering medical school to make up for the shortfall. Drawing on foreign-born talent would seem a logical solution to help buoy this critical segment of the economy. However, the barriers faced by immigrant physicians and their sponsoring institutions are too great for them to be considered a reliable source of talent to fill the impending gaps.
 
Already, a large percentage U.S. healthcare workers are foreign-born: More than 25 percent of physicians; 20 percent of nurses and aides; and 16 percent of pharmacists and dentists. It is currently estimated that, unless drastic measures are taken, the physician shortage may be as large as 90,000 by 2025.
 
In March 2016, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs published a reportsuggesting that the current immigration stalemate could have dire consequences for the U.S. healthcare system. In addition to simply supplying the talent needed for the impending shortage, foreign-born medical professionals add value to healthcare in the United States. According to the Chicago Council’s report, “The linguistic and cultural assets of foreign-born healthcare workers are increasingly in demand given the growing diversity of the United States. Yet visa shortages and licensing issues complicate their hire.”
 
Easing the path for healthcare workers to immigrate to the United States will ultimately benefit the sector’s constituents. For example, more than 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish. However, fewer than one healthcare worker in 20 is proficient in the language. The communication gap grows with less common languages. Communication barriers can make healthcare difficult, especially in federally designated medically underserved areas with larger minority populations, where bridging the language gap may be necessary to effectuate treatment.
As important as immigration reform is to other sectors, such as tech, it is imperative to health care. The impending labor shortfall, combined with growing patient diversity, requires that we look hard at lowering the entry barriers for foreign-born medical talent. Our nation’s health, quite literally, depends on it.

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