Change in U.S. visa policy may increase physician shortage, especially in rural areas

Medical personnel
A procedural change in the visa process could delay the ability of foreign doctors to work in the U.S.

It hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention, but a change to the country’s visa policy is causing concern in rural areas that depend on foreign-born doctors.

The government has changed the timetable for temporary H-1B visa applications that will likely delay the ability of new foreign doctors to start work at healthcare organizations, according to The New York Times.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently said it would temporarily suspend an option by which employers could pay an extra fee of $1,225 to speed up approval of H-1B applications—cutting the time to as little as two weeks, rather than the several months it usually takes.

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Foreign physicians, who practice in inner cities and rural areas that have trouble attracting U.S. doctors, make up about 25% of all physicians practicing or training in the country. Benefis Health System in Montana, for instance, is waiting for the arrival of a Romanian doctor trained in kidney transplants, the Times said. Some 60% of that health system’s doctors are foreign doctors working on visas.

The government said it was eliminating the option to speed up the visa process because companies who paid the extra fee had delayed visas for others. Without the option, applicants must wait their turn because of a backlog resulting from the high volume of petitions. The immigration agency said in a statement that H-1B visa applicants could request approval on an “expedited basis,” if they could show there was an emergency or humanitarian justification, the Times said.

The delay in visas would also affect about 400 foreign born medical graduates scheduled to start residency programs July 1 in teaching hospitals across the country.

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In the meantime, the courts have blocked President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban, which affects six Muslim-majority countries and created its own concerns in the healthcare industry because of its potential detrimental effect on doctors, medical students and patients from those countries.