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Looking Beyond COVID-19, Untapped Pool of Immigrant Health Care Workers Could Play Role Addressing Immediate and Long-Term U.S. Health Needs
Press Release
Thursday, April 29, 2021

Looking Beyond COVID-19, Untapped Pool of Immigrant Health Care Workers Could Play Role Addressing Immediate and Long-Term U.S. Health Needs

WASHINGTON — During the first wave of the COVID-19 public health crisis, several states adopted emergency measures to rapidly expand the number of health care workers, including creating pathways for internationally trained health professionals already in the United States to be licensed and practice. While the policies represented a unique opportunity to tap the talents of underemployed immigrants and refugees with degrees in health and medicine, they also spotlight the need to think creatively about using these professionals as a resource beyond the pandemic.

A new issue brief by Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysts and the president of the American Public Health Association (APHA) examines opportunities for the U.S. health system to address long-term health care and labor needs by turning to this pool of underutilized workers with at least a four-year college degree in health or medicine—a number estimated at 270,000 pre-pandemic. Drawing on discussions with 50 medical and public health professionals, hospital administrators, labor market and health policy experts and representatives of immigrant organizations, MPI researchers Jeanne Batalova and Michael Fix along with José Ramón Fernández-Peña (APHA) note these immigrant professionals possess technical knowledge and linguistic and cultural skills that could bring much-needed diversity to the U.S. health care system.

“Often, it is a question of not only ensuring that skilled workers are available, but also that they are representative of the communities they serve, sharing their languages and cultural experiences,” the authors write in The Integration of Immigrant Health Professionals: Looking beyond the COVID-19 Crisis. “These linguistic and cultural assets can improve the quality of care and help health care workers earn the trust of their patients.”

The brief discusses several trends that present important opportunities for immigrant health workers whose skills have been underutilized as a result of difficulties getting their credentials recognized, licensing hurdles and other barriers. Among the near- and longer-term opportunities:

  • Meeting immediate health care employment needs. After heavy job losses in spring 2020 due to restrictions on elective procedures and diminished use of private or community medical offices during the pandemic, the health care sector is beginning to rebound and demand is growing again for health professionals, including doctors, nurses and mental health and public health specialists.
  • Addressing long-term demand for health care workers. The U.S. population is aging and, within the next decade, a sizable portion of health care professionals is expected to reach retirement age, which may lead to future shortages of workers in the field. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that by 2032, the United States will face a shortage of approximately 122,000 physicians.
  • Increasing diversity among health care providers. While ethnic and racial minority populations are growing much more quickly than the non-Latino White population, they remain starkly under-represented within the health care workforce and among medical students. Less than 13 percent of practicing U.S. physicians as of 2019 were Black, Hispanic or Native American, while these groups represented 33 percent of the U.S. population.

While Colorado, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Nevada and Pennsylvania adopted emergency measures during the pandemic to adjust credential requirements and rapidly expand the number of health care workers, their initiatives collided with long-standing barriers that prevented entry into the field for many with a foreign degree. Nonetheless, these efforts offer important lessons for building a more flexible and resilient health care workforce, the authors argue. While efforts to address licensing, placement, training and educational barriers must be implemented primarily at the state level, there is also a role for the federal government to play, including the Biden administration’s new White House Task Force on New Americans.

“Improving credentialing and employment opportunities for underemployed, internationally trained health care professionals who are already part of communities across the nation is an important part of meeting the current and future challenges facing the U.S. health care sector,” the authors conclude.

Read the issue brief here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/integration-immigrant-health-professionals-beyond-covid-19.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.