U.S. healthcare industry relies on foreign-born doctors and other workers

Male doctor in white lab coat
The U.S. healthcare system depends heavily on medical professionals born outside the U.S. and noncitizens. (Getty/Saklakova)

Healthcare leaders have good reason to be worried about the country’s immigration policies. A new study says that 16.6% of all healthcare professionals in the U.S. in 2016 were not born in the U.S. and almost 5% are not citizens.

A research letter published in JAMA reported that more than 1 in 4 physicians in the U.S. were born in another country and that many nurses, dentists, pharmacists, home health aides and a slew of other workers are also immigrants to the country.

While studies and headlines have focused on physicians, the majority of other healthcare occupations that are important to patient care include significant numbers of non-U.S.-born professionals and noncitizens, the study said.

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Led by researchers from Harvard Medical School, the study analyzed data from the U.S. Census on over 164,000 healthcare professionals to estimate the number of non-U.S.-born and noncitizen healthcare professionals in the U.S.

“How heavily does the U.S. healthcare system rely on the work of skilled immigrants? Very heavily and across nearly all healthcare occupations,” tweeted the study’s senior author, Anupam B. Jena, M.D., of Harvard Medical School.

RELATED: In the middle of an immigration debate, healthcare organizations face real-world impact

Workers born in other countries comprised a substantial proportion of several professions, with the numbers highest for dentists and pharmacists. High numbers of physicians, registered nurses and nursing, psychiatric and home health aides were also born outside the country.

Workers who are not U.S. citizens make up considerable numbers of dietitians and nutritionists, physicians, nursing, psychiatric and home health aides, medical assistants and dental assistants, the analysis found.

About 29% of physicians were born in other countries and almost 7% are not U.S. citizens, the study found.

RELATED: International doctors caught in visa backlog

The majority of healthcare professionals not born in the U.S. emigrated from Asia or Central America and the Caribbean.

The study has implications for care for Americans. “As the U.S. population ages, there will be an increased need for many healthcare professionals, particularly those who provide personal care like home healthcare aides, a large proportion of whom are currently non-U.S.-born,” the authors wrote. Just over 23% of home health, psychiatric and nursing aides were born outside the U.S. and almost 9% were not citizens, the study found

The study provides more ammunition for arguments that making it harder for foreign professionals to move to the U.S. and train here will make physician and other worker shortages worse, especially in the most vulnerable underserved areas that are desperate to attract medical professionals. The U.S. is grappling with a doctor shortage that’s expected to grow to as many as 120,000 physicians by 2030, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

President Donald Trump’s focus on securing U.S. borders and restricting immigration have raised concern about opportunities for both foreign-born doctors and medical students.