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Rehabilitating Immigration Rules for Physical Therapists


Friday, January 18, 2013

As America grapples with the rising challenges to its healthcare system, the anticipated shortages of doctors and nurses in the decades ahead often grabs headlines. However, as a new report from the National Foundation for American Policy points out, foreign-born doctors and nurses needed to fill these gaps aren’t the only medical personnel facing obstacles from current immigration laws. The report, titled “U.S. Government, Heal Thyself: Immigration Restrictions and America’s Growing Health Care Needs,” also highlights the hurdles confronting physical therapists from abroad and offers simple suggestions to address these issues before they seriously undermine the delivery of care (NFAP Policy Brief. Health Care and Immigration.November2012.pdf).

As the report notes, physical therapists are one of the most rapidly growing occupations in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the number of jobs for physical therapists will jump 39% (i.e., 77,400 jobs) between 2010 and 2020, yet there will be a deficit of skilled individuals to fill them. Shortages will be felt most acutely in the south and west, but by 2030, all states will be faced with an undersupply of physical therapists.

The growing demand for physical therapists should come as no surprise: Americans are getting older. More than 100 million Americans are age 50 or older, and in 20 years, more than a fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. This age group generally requires more physical therapy, from recovering from strokes to rehabilitating injuries from falls and other mishaps. Despite the anticipated shortages of physical therapists, immigration procedures and licensing practices are inhibiting the eligibility of foreign-born physical therapists who wish to work here. Becoming eligible is no guarantee of remaining here either, as an H-1B visa may not be available, and a green card could take years (especially for those from China and India). The National Foundation for American Policy report also contends that certain U.S. organizations are complicating matters for foreign-born physical therapists by pushing to move the minimum degree requirement for entry into the field up to a Ph.D. by 2020.

To defuse the brewing crisis, the report makes several suggestions. Among them, the report recommends expanding the number of employment-based green cards to reduce the wait times for skilled immigrants like physical therapists from years or decades to weeks or months. In addition, it urges a streamlining of state licensing and other procedures for foreign medical personnel. Such personnel also include occupational therapists, who frequently work in tandem with physical therapists to help restore functionality and fulfillment to older patients’ lives.

It is critical that such reforms be implemented in the near future. Delays will result in millions of Americans not getting the timely care they deserve. And if time is money, failure to remedy these problems will only make U.S. healthcare that much more expensive.

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