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Skilled Immigrants Fill Healthcare Gaps


Friday, October 31, 2014

A recent piece in The New York Times chronicled the 2014 class of internal medicine residents at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center and their experiences during their first few months. Woodhull is a public medical center that serves the poorer residents on the north side of Brooklyn. The 21 doctors, chosen from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants, began their first year residencies in July. What’s particularly unique about this class is that only nine were born in the United States, and 13 attended medical school outside the U.S. The young physicians are, quite literally, from all over the world: Guatemala, Myanmar, India, Ghana, Venezuela, Poland and Nepal – as well as the U.S. The Woodhull internal medicine class underscores the need for America to look beyond its borders for the talents necessary to stem the shortage of skilled workers in the U.S. healthcare industry.
 
The population in the U.S. is  growing older, outpacing the healthcare industry’s ability to keep up with the need for nurses, physicians and other highly skilled healthcare workers. As of 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) designated more than 5,800 Health Professional Shortage Areas in the country. This shortage of primary care professionals affects about 57 million people and is expected to continue growing over the next few decades. A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine in 2012, projects that by 2025, the U.S. will need more than 50,000 additional primary care physicians in the workforce in order to address the nation’s growing healthcare demand.
 
Another troubling variable in the healthcare puzzle is the Baby Boom generation. Aging baby boomers are not only driving up the demand for healthcare, but the majority of working nurses are, themselves, baby boomers. Therefore, as baby boomers retire from the healthcare field, they will place a dual-fold demand on the system: they represent a decrease in the skilled workforce and an increase in the need for services.
 
Looking abroad for the talent to fill the projected healthcare employment shortfalls makes considerable sense – and not just for the skills talented immigrants represent. The changing demographics in an ever-more-diverse United States means that nurses with a cross-cultural background and/or language skills will be more sought-after. Healthcare should, thus, be a major talking point in any discussion of immigration reform. Policy makers should consider relaxing caps on H-1B visas for skilled healthcare workers or making greater use of the Conrad State 30 J-1 waiver program, which is designed to smooth the way for international medical graduates (IMGs) to serve in medically underserved areas of the U.S. Considering the demographic changes occurring throughout the country, immigrant medical professionals offer the key to keeping the U.S. healthcare system strong and effective in treating an increasingly diverse population.

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