U.S. Needs (More) Doctors Without Borders

Patients hoping to make their visit to the hospital an easy one should request a doctor educated abroad.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Researchers found that Medicare patients treated by international medical graduates had better survival rates than those treated by U.S.-trained doctors.

It’s only the latest entry into a large body of research proving the value of internationally trained doctors to the U.S. health care system.

And we need many more of them. The United States faces a significant shortage of physicians, especially in rural and other underserved areas. International medical graduates have historically filled those roles at far greater rates than their U.S.-educated peers. They’ll continue to do so in the future, too — if our nation will let them.

The Harvard study isn’t the first to show that international medical graduates provide world-class care. A 2010 study of a quarter-million heart disease patients, for example, found that those cared for by foreign-trained doctors had lower death rates than patients treated by U.S. medical graduates.

International medical graduates are also far more likely to practice in socioeconomically disadvantaged locales. One study published by the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that IMGs were almost twice as likely as osteopathic physicians to practice in rural areas.

In some cases, foreign physicians can qualify for a special J-1 nonimmigrant visa in return for serving underserved communities after they complete their residencies. The program alone has enticed 15,000 foreign physicians to practice in high-need areas over the past 15 years.

Doctors educated outside the United States will grow even more valuable in the coming years, as the country’s dearth of physicians grows more acute. By 2030, the United States may be short as many as 104,900 doctors. The shortfall of primary care physicians will reach as much as 43,100 over that same period, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Since international medical graduates are more likely to become primary care physicians than their U.S.-trained peers, they are especially well-suited to fill this gap. Indeed, about 40% of practicing international medical graduates are in primary care.

Only one in five graduates from U.S. schools, by contrast, plans to go into the field.

At the medical school I lead, St. George’s University in Grenada, roughly three-quarters of our graduates go into primary care. The vast majority end up at health care facilities in the United States.

Unfortunately, Americans’ access to the high-caliber care offered by foreign-trained doctors, many of whom are U.S. citizens, is under threat.

Some in the American medical community have called for legislation that specifically discriminates against foreign-trained doctors. The American Osteopathic Organization, for example, has asked Congress to give graduates of U.S. medical schools first pick of domestic residency positions.

The New York Board of Regents, meanwhile, has taken steps to favor U.S.-trained doctors over those educated outside the country. The body temporarily stopped international medical schools from adding any more clinical education slots at hospitals throughout the Empire State.

Meanwhile, the federal government is contemplating several proposals that would restrict the number of immigrants permitted to work in the United States — and thus could make it much harder for foreign doctors to set up shop here.

International medical graduates will play an increasingly important role in meeting America’s growing demand for talented, well-trained doctors. Given that many of these physicians are more effective than their domestically-educated peers, now is not the time to be turning them away.


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