Layla Sulaiman served as a primary care OB/GYN for 17 years before she left Iraq in 2007. But in this country, her medical license is no longer valid. Sulaiman is one of many refugees — though no one knows exactly how many — who practiced medicine in their home countries, who are now working in low-skilled jobs, driving taxis and working in grocery stores.
“The brain waste is appalling,” said Dr. José Ramón Fernandez-Peña, an associate professor of health education at San Francisco State University who studied medicine in his native Mexico. He is also the founder and director of the Welcome Back Initiative, which has helped foreign-trained providers get health care jobs in the United States since 2001. “These are individuals who could be taking care of children with asthma, and instead are working at a car wash,” he said.
Sulaiman had originally hoped to be relocated to Australia, where her sister-in-law lives and where there are accelerated paths for foreign doctors. Had she gone to a country like Canada, she could have practiced with some restrictions while obtaining a full license.
But she ended up in the United States, where she must start her training from scratch. Refugees may have additional struggles, advocates say. For example, many must leave their home countries on short notice, making it difficult for longtime doctors to track down old transcripts and records.
Within the United States, there are more residency slots than medical students to fill them. This year, more than 22,000 American-educated students vied for nearly 29,000 first-year residency slots, according to the National Resident Matching Program. The rest of these positions were filled largely by foreign graduates.
Some experts predict a doctor shortage of 40,800 to 104,900 by 2030, according to an analysis commissioned by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Fernandez-Peña said that putting foreign-trained doctors to work in America is a no-brainer. “Why not invest in this freebie?” he asked. “They’ve already been trained. We would be reaping the benefits that (another) country has spent money in training their work force.”