Removing Barriers for Immigrant Medical Professionals Is Critical To Help Fight Coronavirus

Immigrant doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are on the front lines in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. With the coronavirus pandemic straining health care systems, some states, such as New York and New Jersey, have taken steps to bolster their workforce by suspending requirements and making it easier for immigrant and foreign-trained doctors to join the fight. Connecticut is asking retired doctors and nurses to volunteer to serve, and the New York University Grossman School of Medicine and four medical schools in Massachusetts are allowing current students to graduate early to start helping right away. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education, under the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, released guidance for medical schools considering similar early-graduation policies. The COVID-19 pandemic is projected to peak starting in the next two weeks, with patient need far exceeding the capacity of the health care system in many areas. Increasingly more front-line providers are getting sick, which exacerbates the shortage and worsens the situation.

Nearly 29 percent of all U.S. physicians, 22 percent of nursing assistants, and 38 percent of home health aides are foreign born; together, foreign-born workers make up 17 percent of the entire health care and social services industry. But there are many challenges for immigrant medical professionals who work in this country. Even under normal circumstances, immigrant doctors must overcome numerous hurdles, ranging from unfair state licensing requirements to rigid visa rules, to practice in the United States.

Paradoxically, COVID-19 has actually heightened the barriers faced by badly needed immigrant medical professionals. For instance, office closures and the suspension of visa services at consulates overseas are severely hampering the ability of health care professionals to get medical licenses, obtain visas, and remain in status. Federal and state policymakers, as well as the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG), an entity that certifies international medical graduates (IMGs) to work in the United States, must immediately work together to lift barriers and enable immigrant and foreign-trained health care professionals to quickly serve in COVID-19 hot spots. This column outlines actions that the federal government and states should take to increase health care service capacity in U.S. cities and localities immediately.

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