As an aspiring infectious disease doctor, I never thought I’d experience an actual pandemic during my training. But COVID-19 has dominated my experience as an internal medicine resident working in an ICU in Philly.
It’s been incredibly challenging: At one point in April, all of our 12 beds were occupied by COVID patients, and we had to expand into our intermediate care unit to treat the overflow. I’ve experienced the agony of watching a patient die without family by their side.
As a Colombian native, I’m one of many foreign-trained clinicians on the front lines of this crisis. We are vital, both for the individual care we provide patients, and in the greater role we play filling America’s severe health-care worker shortage. Prior to COVID, the country already had a shortfall of tens of thousands of doctors, according to the New American Economy think tank. As 76.4 million baby boomers continue to age, the gap is expected to grow by 90,000 physicians by 2025. In the midst of a pandemic, that need is greater than ever.
Unfortunately, restrictive federal immigration policies, accompanied by difficult state licensing processes, are exacerbating this problem. This summer, President Donald Trump suspended many visas to the U.S., including some that allow foreign-born doctors to come and work here.
Without these visas, the rural and underserved areas where patient need is increasingly desperate will lose thousands of doctors. Twenty-two percent of Pennsylvanians already live in medically underserved areas, and many immigrants are filling those gaps. New immigrants are more likely to move states for a job, and foreign-born doctors are more likely to choose primary care fields.
Truly supporting American health care, however, requires broader reform. That starts at the state level, building professional licensing processes that recognize the skill and experience that internationally trained professionals like me bring to the U.S.
Eight years ago, I was a practicing physician in my native Colombia. I earned my medical degree there and had worked as a physician for two and a half years at the Red Cross and in a large hospital in western Colombia.
But when I launched my medical career in America, I had to start from scratch. After passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, I spent seven months working as a clinician’s assistant. This was despite the fact that I’d supervised such assistants back in Colombia. I then had to start a residency program, even though I’d already completed six years of training in Colombia. I could’ve gotten to work much faster and better served patients in the U.S. if the licensing process were more user-friendly for international doctors.
There are many others in my situation: The Migration Policy Institute points to about 165,000 internationally trained health-care professionals living in the U.S. whose experience isn’t being put to use. A survey by the nonprofit Upwardly Global found that 93% of these individuals would be willing to serve on the front lines of COVID if given the opportunity.
A handful of states have taken steps to allow eligible health-care professionals to assist in the COVID response, including providing temporary licenses. But if this is OK in a crisis, why not afterward?
The United States needs more international health-care professionals like me — especially since bilingual clinicians are necessary to fight a virus that disproportionately affects immigrants and communities of color. I often use my Spanish to help translate for other doctors in the hospital and outpatient clinics. Many of my internationally trained colleagues also have past experience working in crisis situations, including other pandemics like SARS, Ebola, and swine flu.
I’m grateful to have come to the U.S. seven years ago. And as difficult as my professional journey — and working through this pandemic — has been, I’m also honored to be of service. Every time a “rainbow code” comes over the PA, announcing that a COVID patient is well enough to go home, I remember why I became a doctor.
Until this pandemic is behind us, I will do whatever it takes to see more people walk out those hospital doors. There are thousands of doctors like me who feel this way. They deserve our support, no matter where they come from.