Politics and Society
How the U.S and UK are reacting to the need for more foreign medical professionals
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how reliant the health systems of both the UK and U.S. are on foreign doctors who have most times had to battle immigration issues to meet the stringent requirements of their host countries.
The history of foreigners, mostly Blacks and Asians, fighting the wars of Europeans is as recent as World War 1 and 2. After the Second World War, facing severe labour shortages, many immigrants flooded the UK. Another ‘war’, in the form of the Covid–19 pandemic is upon us and has left the U.S and UK not only with the highest death toll but with a severe shortage of medical personnel.
The U.S Congress in a bid to address these medical personnel shortages is considering two bills, the Conrad State 30 and Physician Access Reauthorization Act “which incentivizes qualified foreign physicians to go to underserved communities and work,” while the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act will give 40, 000 unused visas from past years to immigrant medical professionals to meet the shortages exacerbated by the Covid – 19 crisis.
These bills are targeting physicians like Dr. Joseph Hundeyin who didn’t want to practice clinical medicine in his country, Nigeria, after critically looking at the health system and its abundant failures. He told This Is Africa, one of the issues he observed was the way trainees were treated and spoken to terribly despite working for ridiculously long hours. In some instances, trainees paid the hospital to do training, and at many other times, trainees were not paid. After completing medical school, Dr. Hundeyin left for the UK in December 2018. He is one of many other foreign doctors who sit for the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB) examinations and join the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K, or the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) for the U.S.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how reliant the health systems of both the UK and U.S. are on foreign doctors who have most times had to battle immigration issues to meet the requirements of their host countries. U.S Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, “On top of work stress, many immigrant doctors fighting coronavirus also face the added burden of visa uncertainty. It shouldn’t have to be this way – all health workers must be able to maintain their immigration status.”
The first three doctors to die from Covid–19 in the UK were originally from Sudan and Nigeria. They had worked for many years in the U.K’s NHS. Their deaths brought to fore the large number of foreign doctors the NHS depends on. The King’s Fund acknowledged that immigrants make up a significant and substantial part of the NHS workforce which is already dealing with staff shortages of around 100,000, a figure that would increase to about 250, 000 in a decade. More than half (55%) of the doctors who joined the U.K workforce between 2018 and 2019 had qualified outside the UK.
Dr Hundeyin explained that a major concern by foreign doctors in the UK which has led to agitation is the threat of deportation their families face if they die while battling this pandemic. For many, their families are dependants on the Tier 2 visa which is based on them working. A petition to parliament for Indefinite Leave to Remain to be granted to foreign doctors fighting Covid–19 has received over 56,000 signatures.
The U.S and UK have adjusted their laws and immigration policies to suit the current dearth of healthcare workers. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced an extension for 2,800 migrant doctors, nurses, and paramedics under the employ of the NHS whose visas were to expire on October 1. Earlier efforts such as the NHS Visa, launched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson which “promises to mitigate the potential losses Brexit may bring of EU workers” might be fast tracked due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Judicaelle Irakoze, a 2019 European Commission Young Leader on Migration said that there would have been no visa relaxation in a quick way under normal circumstances, but the reality of such measures is possible. She added, “the world as we knew it quickly changed, and many radical measures we knew as theory were adopted.”
According to the New American Economy, 16.5% of all healthcare workers in the U.S are immigrants. While a July 2019 report from the House of Commons Library, stated that 28% of doctors in hospital and community health services in the UK were foreign nationals.
New American Economy’s Director of Quantitative Research, Andrew Lim explained that immigrants make up 1 in 6 healthcare workers overall in the U.S. He said, “immigrants are even more prevalent in highly specialized and skilled roles, like physicians and surgeons. More than 1 in 4 physicians and surgeons in the United States are immigrants. If we look at the places that are seeing the most acute healthcare needs due to this crisis, we find even higher concentrations of immigrant healthcare workers.”
U.S. governors in states such as California, New Jersey, Nevada, and Massachusetts signed new licensing laws to allow foreign-certified healthcare professionals to practice. Mo Kantner, the Associate Director, State and Local Initiatives at the New American Economy told The Economist, “during this crisis, state governors have much more flexibility to issue emergency Executive Orders as a way to combat the spread and morbidity of the virus.”
While the NHS has drawn a lot of doctors from many of Britain’s former colonies – India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe amongst others – the true size of this group compared to the number of UK born doctors is disputed. A 2019 report by the General Medical Council stated that between June 2018 and 2019, the number of international medical graduate (IMG) doctors grew by 8.3%.
“With people living longer, medical technologies being developed every day, and newer diseases emerging, like the one we are dealing with right now in a globalized world, the role of international medical graduates and foreign doctors would even be more critical,” said Dr. Adura Banke-Thomas, a Research Fellow at LSE Department of Health Policy.