How Restrictions On International Medical Graduates Are Making It Harder To Treat COVID-19

Aug 13, 2020

As COVID-19 persists, we continue to rely heavily on doctors and health care professionals to keep our communities safe. Many of these physicians will also be working under the stress of their immigration status, which limits the extent they can provide care.

International medical graduates, or IMGs, make up 25% of the total active physician population in the U.S., and just over 19% make up the workforce in Wisconsin.

The realities and struggles that accompany being an IMG is the subject of a new study co-authored by Dr. Sonal Chandratre, a pediatric physician and faculty member at the Medical College of Wisconsin-Central Wisconsin campus. It’s the first research of its kind.

Chandratre says there's a misconception amongst some people that international medical graduates are taking jobs away from American doctors. But in reality, they aren't allowed to apply for positions unless zero American citizens apply for the job. This scarcity creates intense competition amongst the IMGs.

This means that international medical graduates often serve areas where there's a lack of medical professionals. Chandratre explains that this leads to large pockets of IMGs in underserved communities and an absence of IMGs in more desirable working areas.  

“There are nearly 21 million Americans living in areas where more than half of their physicians that they would interact with are International Medical Graduates,” she says.

Cudahy is one of those communities in Wisconsin — 61% of the physician workforce there is foreign-born. 

"You actually are forced to be a silent observer and say, 'Well, this is where I'm expected to work. If I work anywhere else, I become illegal.' "

Once they get placed, their visas are tied to that location, making it impossible for them to work anywhere else. And the COVID-19 pandemic has presented problems as hospitals and clinics just down the road may have a sudden spike and need doctors, but IMGs legally cannot help. There are also restrictions on how long international medical graduates can go without working from their in-person location, which can make telehealth complicated.

"There’s really no wiggle room, even if you are qualified, even if you want to volunteer, even if you want to save someone’s life. You actually are forced to be a silent observer and say, 'Well, this is where I’m expected to work. If I work anywhere else, I become illegal,' " says Chandratre.

Currently, there's a bill in the Senate called the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act that would expedite the process of bringing more foreign-born physicians to the U.S., to help meet health care needs. Chandratre supports this measure and says the U.S. should follow the U.K.’s footsteps and automatically extend every health care workers visa for a year so they don’t need to worry about the lengthy application.

“We now need to understand that there are no boundaries when it comes to saving lives,” she says.