How to Train and Keep Foreign Doctors in the U.S.

J-1 visas and Conrad 30 waivers help, but they’re running out fast

The United States is on the verge of a severe shortage of doctors. A study released in March 2017 and conducted by the Association for American Medical Colleges (AAMC) determined that due to projected increases in population, greater longevity, and the retirement of practicing physicians, we face a shortage of roughly 100,000 doctors by the year 2030. In short:  We need more doctors.

But U.S. medical schools are unlikely to be able to keep up with this demand. One key strategy for staffing hospitals and clinics with trained physicians has long been to hire international medical graduates. Atlanta immigration attorney Elizabeth Garvish represents hospitals and medical practices that hire foreign-trained physicians to meet this need. “Foreign grads come here and get residency training; they have fellowships here; they have to pass all the U.S. licensing exams,” she says. “Many come on training visas, called J-1s, to do their training, which is sponsored by the Education Commission of Foreign Medical Graduates.”

Physicians who are trained in the U.S. under a J-1 visa are generally required to return to their home country for two years following the completion of their exchange visitor program. This means that they cannot pursue permanent residency here. A waiver of this return requirement is available under a program entitled Conrad 30, designed to increase trained physician staffing in areas with high need. “They serve for at least three years in a medically underserved area or population. Once they do that, they can go on and get sponsored for a green card,” Garvish adds.

These doctors can provide significant impact to the communities they serve. The American Immigration Lawyers Association did a study that showed, in some communities, 75 percent of the physicians treating U.S. indigent patients are foreign-educated doctors. “That’s kind of a big deal,” Garvish says. “We’ve got all these doctors really doing a service. I have one psychiatrist client I’ve known forever: He’s settled in a community in Iowa, a really lovely community, where now they have such a diverse population because of all their doctors.”

Garvish has observed a tightening of Conrad 30 waivers, noting that they are all gone in most states, including Georgia. “[In 2017], we had two clients who were neurosurgical doctors, Emory-trained, who were going to work here at the Atlanta Medical Center, which is a designated underserved area. I called in September, and was told they had used every number up. I have not seen that happen in Georgia before,” she says.

“Recent policy changes are really affecting these doctors. We’ve got this population of people I would call the rock stars—and you know, salaries are not super high—they’re primary care physicians and the like. We want them to feel on the ball, secure in their life, not have any undue stress. But we’re making it so hard for them. Some people are just going to go away from frustration.”

Having an experienced immigration lawyer can definitely help. If you or someone you know has encountered challenges with a J-1 waiver, make sure you have professional legal help to navigate the complexity of the immigration process.

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