This week, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed into law SHB1129, which allows qualified international medical graduates to practice medicine in Washington. The new law marks an important step forward in bolstering local health workforces strained by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It also opens a potential way forward for 165,000 immigrant and refugee healthcare professionals that currently live in the U.S. but face barriers as they try to rebuild health careers in this country; 5,000 of these professionals live in Washington State.
“COVID-19 has overwhelmed a healthcare system that was already grappling with acute pre-pandemic staffing shortages. Internationally trained healthcare professionals are ready and willing to offer their skills, passion, and training to save lives,” said Jina Krause-Vilmar, President and CEO of Upwardly Global. “In embracing this untapped talent, Washington State is building a diverse, responsive health workforce that will more effectively navigate this pandemic and future disruptions, and also deliver the linguistically and culturally competent care so urgently needed in communities across our country.”
Immigrant and refugee professionals face a host of barriers in rebuilding careers in the U.S., including limited professional networks, misperceptions about the value of their international credentials and experience, and hiring bias. Yet for internationally-trained healthcare professionals, particularly doctors, the biggest obstacle to returning to medicine often lies in state-level licensing policies.
In most states, immigrant physicians with credentials and experience from their home countries must repeat examinations and training to satisfy licensing requirements, a process that takes years and thousands of dollars to complete. Each of the three steps of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) costs $975; upon satisfactory completion of exams, immigrant physicians must compete for a slot in a multi-year hospital residency program. This year, just 55 percent of immigrant international medical graduates who successfully passed the exams matched for residency, compared to 93 percent of U.S. graduates.
The match disparity is due to systemic bias rather than any difference in skill; international medical graduates may be automatically filtered out of match programs. Moreover, match criteria are designed to favor recent graduates, leaving more experienced physicians struggling to access residency programs.
As a result, many immigrant and refugee physicians languish in rapid-attachment, minimum-wage survival jobs. Physicians in Upwardly Global’s network work as fast-food cashiers, security guards, and nursing home attendants or are unable to find employment before connecting with career-coaching programs and taking steps to rebuild healthcare careers.
Washington State’s law upholds rigorous standards in issuing newly created limited licenses. Candidates are required to have international transcripts certified in the U.S., pass all steps of the USMLE, and complete a background check. Hospital residency requirements are waived; however, limited license holders are required to practice under the supervision of fully licensed physicians. The Washington law builds on momentum from six states that issued temporary licenses for internationally-trained physicians to contribute to local pandemic response last year.
Upwardly Global applauds the Washington Academy for International Medical Graduates (WAIMG) for leadership in advancing this legislative effort. Upwardly Global and WAIMG are both members of IMPRINT, a national coalition hosted by World Education Services (WES) working to advance public policies and promising models that promote career pathways for immigrants and refugees seeking to use their international credentials in the U.S.
To support the healthcare sector in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and filling projected shortages of physicians and other workers in coming years, Upwardly Global has created a Healthcare Connect initiative to match healthcare employers with internationally trained health professionals. Learn more at: https://www.upwardlyglobal.org/healthcare-connect-covid-19/
Upwardly Global, founded in 2000, is the first and longest-serving organization focused on advancing the inclusion of immigrant and refugee professionals into the U.S. workforce. Upwardly Global’s innovative skill-building and networking programs coach internationally trained professionals in rebuilding professional careers and U.S. employers in accessing their talents with inclusive hiring practices. To date, Upwardly Global has placed more than 7,500 people, adding $358 million to the economy each year. Learn more at www.upwardlyglobal.org.