Foreign-Born Doctors Have A Big Impact On U.S. Health Care

Recent headlines have put a spotlight on immigration in Texas.

Many who come to the United States do so for the opportunity at a better life, and that includes thousands of medical doctors who want to do more with their careers than possible in their home countries.

Data journalists at NBC found that out of the 535,545 health care practitioners and technicians in Texas, 116,495 are from another country.

Experts say our nation has become dependent on foreign-born doctors, filling a gap in a current doctor shortage.

When Dr. Ellaheh Ebrahim moved to America from Iran, she never imagined she'd end up in Wichita Falls, Texas.

She followed her husband, an American citizen, to the United States to give her daughter a better education, but was an established doctor in obstetrics and gynecology in her home country.

She says she knew the move would be mean starting over.  
International doctors who seek to practice medicine in the United States must pass a series of exams and obtain a residency through a medical school program.

Dr. Ebrahim says when she learned she had gotten an OBGYN residency position at a clinic in Wichita Falls, she was overjoyed.

"It was a new chapter of my life. It was something that I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t have any type of experience working in the United States," said Dr. Ebrahim.

After her residency, she knew she could move anywhere to practice medicine, but says she fell in love with the community of Wichita Falls and even more in love with the patient population she was serving, which was the under-insured.

She is now the Chief Medical Officer of Community Health Center, the federally-funded health center in Wichita Falls. 

"Here, they always say, "America is the land of opportunity," but not in Iran.  If I wanted to stay over there, I could work. I could do my job. I could grow and have more money, but I couldn't have the same job or the same feeling that I have now," said Dr. Ebrahim.

As part of the visa process, most international doctors who come to American to practice medicine must either serve the under-served, whether rural or low income communities, or specialize in advanced fields of medicine.

Travis Singleton, Executive Vice President of Merritt Hawkins, a Dallas-based physician staffing firm, estimates that 25 percent of all doctors in the U.S. international medical graduates, who are foreign-born doctors going through the process of becoming doctors in the United States.

"I would argue when you get out into the rural communities, the under-served communities, those that desperately depend on visa candidates, international medical graduates, Texas is incredibly reliant on that stream," said Singleton.

The firm estimates that Texas currently needs about 13,000 more doctors to keep up with demand. Singleton says our dependence on foreign-born doctors, highlights what could happen if our country's borders begin to close.

"Not only do you have bad patient waits, we would argue it's even worse.  You may not go see a physician at all," he said.

"Anything that dissuades them from wanting to come and practice in the United States could be devastating for us. That is something the system, which is already maxed out frankly, can't handle," said Singleton.

Dr. Saleem Malik of Fort Worth is now part of that system.

He was a primary care physician in Pakistan but moved to the United States to specialize in neurology.

"Becoming a doctor is hard but after that, what do you do? How do specialize? How do you do better? If you're interested to do more and more, fortunately, America provides you an opportunity," said Dr. Malik.

Dr. Malik is now one of the state's top pediatric neurologists, who runs a special lab, one of only three of its kind in the state, where he is able to detect the spots in the brain where a seizure starts.                   

His work has improved the lives of young epileptic patients referred to him as their last resort.

"I am still really thankful for the program set up we have in this country that I, just from an ordinary doctor from a third world country, can become a super specialist and it's a win win situation for everybody," said Dr. Malik.

Merritt-Hawkins estimates that the national doctor shortage will reach between 90,000 and 125,000 by the year 2025.

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