What You Need to Know About Foreign-Trained Doctors in the U.S. Healthcare System

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There are more than 247,000 doctors with medical degrees from foreign countries practicing in the United States. A fourth of all physicians in the nation are foreign-trained—the majority of whom are also likely foreign-born (based on medical licensing data). With healthcare worker shortages projected for the foreseeable future, the U.S. healthcare system may increasingly depend on foreign medical graduates.

Across the country, 20.8 million people live in areas where foreign-trained doctors account for at least half of all doctors, according to a recent report from the American Immigration Council. And foreign-trained doctors represent nearly 70 percent of primary-care doctors in these locations.

The report’s findings—based on an analysis of American Medical Association data and socio-demographic characteristics of U.S. populations—confirm that foreign-trained doctors are more likely than their U.S.-trained counterparts to practice in lower-income and disadvantaged U.S. communities. Specifically, the report found that:

  • In areas with the highest poverty rates—where more than 30 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty rate—nearly one-third of all doctors are foreign-trained.
  • Where per-capita income is below $15,000 per year, 42.5 percent of all doctors are foreign-trained.
  • Where 75 percent or more of the population is non-white, 36.2 percent of the doctors are foreign-trained.
  • Where 10 percent or less of the population has a college degree, nearly one-third of all doctors are foreign-trained.

According to the analysis, areas of the country where at least half of doctors were trained abroad have greater African-American, Hispanic, and non-white populations than areas with no foreign-trained doctors. This is notable since communities with more minorities and low-income individuals are less likely to have access to primary healthcare than areas with predominantly wealthy, highly-educated, and white residents.

Other research has demonstrated the quality of the care foreign medical graduates provide. A study from Harvard’s School of Public Health found that, after adjusting for key variables, patients treated by foreign-educated doctors had a better survival rate than those cared for by U.S. medical graduates.

The demand for foreign-trained doctors will only increase as the need for doctors and accessible, affordable healthcare in the United States continues to grow. The Association of American Medical Colleges found that the demand for doctors will continue to outpace supply, leading to a projected shortfall of between 46,100 and 90,400 doctors by 2025, many in primary care.

While there are efforts underway to support and retain foreign medical graduates—such as Minnesota’s newly-established International Medical Graduate Program—immigration policies significantly limit the ability of these doctors to immigrate to and practice in the United States.

As policymakers weigh decisions on immigration and healthcare policy, they should take into account the important fact that foreign-trained doctors provide medical care in key areas and fill gaps in U.S. healthcare.

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