Foreign-trained doctors could solve looming doctor shortage

Foreign-trained physicians could help ease the looming doctor shortage, but are stymied by the long and cumbersome process for becoming licensed in the U.S, the New York Times reported today.

The costly, decade-long process includes numerous requirements, the newspaper noted: Demonstrating proficiency in English, passing three stages of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination, getting recommendation letters from U.S. hospitals or other medical organizations, becoming permanent residents or receiving a work visa, and--most difficult--obtaining and completing a medical residency, even if they already completed a residency in their home countries (other than Canada).

Each year about 3,000 of the 8,000 immigrant doctors who apply through the national residency match system receive a residency, or about 42 percent over the last five years. About 94 percent of seniors at mainstream U.S. medical schools win residencies through the national match system, the newspaper reported.

Competition for residencies is expected to tighten even further as the number of students at U.S. medical schools grows while the number of residencies--most of which are subsidized by Medicare--remains flat, according to the article.

Allowing more foreign-trained physicians to practice "doesn't cost the taxpayers a penny because these doctors come fully trained," Nyapati Raghu Rao, past chairman of the American Medical Association's international medical graduates governing council, told the Times. "It is doubtful that the U.S. can respond to the massive shortages without the participation of international medical graduates. But we're basically ignoring them in this discussion and I don't know why that is."

Some medical schools are taking steps to try to ease the path for at least a few immigrant physicians.

UCLA, for example, founded the International Medical Graduates Program in 2007 to attract trained Latino doctors to help treat Southern California's large, underserved Spanish-speaking population, according to the Press-Enterprise of Riverside, Calif.

The program pays costs for coursework, test-preparation classes and living expenses while Latin American doctors go through residencies in Southern California hospitals like Riverside County Regional Medical Center, the paper reported. The residents also receive required letters of recommendation.

Patrick Dowling, M.D., chairman of UCLA's Department of Family Medicine, estimated there are more than 2,000 foreign-trained doctors in Southern California not practicing medicine.

Graduates of the privately funded UCLA program are required to spend two to three years after their residencies working in underserved regions for a nonprofit organization with larger numbers of Medi-Cal and uninsured patients, Dowling told the paper.

For more information:
-read the Times article
-here's the Press-Enterprise article
-check out the International Medical Graduates Program website