As U.S. Health Care System Sags under Strain of Pandemic, Immigrants and Refugees with Degrees in Health Care Could Serve as an Important Resource
WASHINGTON – Even as 1.5 million immigrants and refugees are already employed in the U.S. health care system as doctors, registered nurses and pharmacists, another 263,000 foreign-born health care graduates are on the sidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic—many of them because of difficulties getting their credentials accepted by employers and licensing bodies.
As governors call retired physicians back into service and U.S. medical schools graduate students on an accelerated basis, policymakers could also tap this pool of qualified health care professionals in a time of crisis—as some countries and a few U.S. states are actively considering.
A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis estimates that 263,000 immigrants and refugees who have a four-year degree in a health-related field are either confined to low-paying jobs that require at most a high school degree (such as home health or personal care aides) or are out of work. The analysis also provides estimates for the states with the largest populations of underutilized health care professionals, including hard-hit New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California.
This pool of talent could prove particularly useful during a pandemic that is most dangerous for those 60 and older, as these immigrants tend to be younger, with 56 percent between ages 25-44, as compared to 45 percent of the U.S.-born underutilized health professionals (a population MPI estimates at 846,000).
Credential-recognition issues are particularly acute for those who obtained their academic degrees abroad, with foreign-educated immigrants representing about two-thirds (165,000) of the underutilized immigrant health professionals.
“Employers may be reluctant to hire workers with degrees from universities that are unfamiliar to them. Also, immigrants may lack important professional networks that connect them to employment opportunities or a sufficient level of professional English competence to get promoted,” MPI Senior Fellow Michael Fix and Senior Policy Analyst Jeanne Batalova write. “Further, their credentials may not be aligned with those required by U.S. health care systems and licensing authorities. And it is common knowledge that obtaining U.S. licenses to work is difficult, time-consuming and costly.”
Governors in New York and New Jersey have temporarily lifted rules preventing graduates of foreign medical schools from practicing medicine, and others are being pressed to cut through the red tape as well. Governments in Canada, Europe and South America are also considering temporarily accepting the medical credentials of foreign-trained doctors and other health professionals, with British Columbia for example weighing a new “associate physician” category and Spain contemplating expedited credentialing for international medical graduates and nurses for one year.
Beyond bringing a new infusion of medical talent into a U.S. health system that is buckling, underutilized immigrant and refugee health professionals could also provide important linguistic and cultural diversity.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the skills of 263,000 immigrants and refugees with college degrees in health-related fields had not been put to the best use in the U.S. labor market. However, in a time of crisis with growing shortages of staff in hospitals, community clinics, health departments and testing centers, many of these immigrants could be mobilized and re-employed in jobs across the health care field,” Fix and Batalova conclude.
Read their analysis here: www.migrationpolicy.org/news/us-health-care-system-coronavirus-immigrant-professionals-untapped-resource.
And for estimates of the immigrants who are working in health care and other frontline occupations responding to the pandemic, check out our recent fact sheet: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrant-workers-us-covid-19-response.
For all of MPI’s research, analysis and commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/coronavirus.