International medical graduates (IMGs) have been playing a crucial role in clinician staffing needs for U.S. hospitals, especially in hospital medicine and internal medicine. According to a study, IMGs comprise 25% of the total U.S. physician workforce and 36% of internists.1,2 According to data from the 2008 Today’s Hospitalist Compensation & Career Survey, 32% of practicing hospitalists are IMGs.3
Many IMGs come to work in the U.S. via one of three paths. Just like all roads lead to Rome, all visas lead to a permanent residency pathway, eventually based on the country of origin and number of years waiting. The first path is a green card – cases where IMGs were on a visa and within a certain amount of time they received a green card. The second path is J-1 visa waivers for physicians who trained in the U.S. under a J-1 Visa. Typically, physicians on J-1 Visa waivers need to provide their services for a minimum of 3 years working in underserved areas – where there’s a shortage of health professionals – before they can apply for permanent residency.
The third and most popular path is the H-1B visa, which hospitalists traditionally use as a springboard to apply for permanent residency. Studies have shown that IMGs are more likely to practice medicine in rural and underserved areas. In many instances, physicians end up working in these areas for long periods of time.4
There has been an ongoing national debate on immigration reform and revamping the H-1B visa process since President Trump first issued an executive order directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to consider ways to “make the process of H-1B allocation more efficient and ensure the beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest” and also suggesting “extreme vetting.” Congress set the current annual cap for the H-1B visa category at 85,000.5 The majority (75%) of H-1B visas will go to technology, engineering, and computer-related occupations. Medicine and health-related H-1B applications are only 5% of total H-1B visas approved.6 Most of the H-1B reforms are aimed at the technology industry, but hospitalists happen to be in the same candidate pool, and this might be a good time to consider whether hospitalists and other clinicians should be separated from this pool.
The Department of Homeland Security has considered creating another visa pathway for the technology industry, whereby an alien graduating from a U.S. university with an advanced degree in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) course of study would receive a new visa and pathway to permanent residency. We believe hospitalists and other physicians should also have an expedited pathway to permanent residency. This step benefits both the U.S. health care system and hospitalists in many ways. It increases hospitalists’ portability and flexibility with schedules. With a traditional H-1B visa, hospitalists are bound to work with the one hospital/system that sponsors the H-1B, and would not be able to work at any other hospital without another extension/addendum to current visa status, even in cases where a physician had time off and would like to offer services at another facility. It is a well-known fact that hospitalist teams are understaffed and try to bring on per-diem staff to fill holes in schedules. The majority of hospitalists are working week-on/week-off schedules, and with an expedited pathway to a green card they would be able to work in different hospitals. They would also be able to move to remote places, or “doctor deserts,” and offer their services, helping to ensure the quality and safety of patient care to which all Americans are entitled.
In 2016 alone, around 1,500 H-1B visas were filed for hospitalist physicians.7 Each hospitalist has an average of 15 patient encounters per day, and for 1,500 physicians that amounts to about 4 million patient encounters annually.8 These data account for only new 2016 visa-holding physicians, and do not account for already approved or renewed visas. It would be very challenging to count the number of patient encounters by hospitalists who are on a visa, but 1 billion patient encounters is not overestimating. Recent studies show that quality of care provided by IMGs is not inferior to that of U.S. medical graduates. The study showed that patients cared for by IMGs have lesser mortality, compared with those cared by U.S. medical graduates.9
In this era of hospital medicine, hospitalists are focusing not only on clinical aspects of patient care but also on efficacy, quality of care, and patient safety and satisfaction, and they are working with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to develop cost-cutting programs to save billions of dollars in health care expenses. This is the primary reason a majority of hospitals are focused on developing a hospitalist track, and encouraging hospitalists to pursue leadership roles in managing hospitals effectively.
The U.S. health care system is starved for hospitalists and primary care physicians, and IMGs will continue to play a pivotal role. Yet IMGs must deal with shifting trends in immigration policy, and in some recent instances immigrant physicians have been asked to leave the U.S. because of immigration reforms.10,11 We would like the Society of Hospital Medicine to take a stand on behalf of IMG hospitalists and ask the U.S. Department of Labor and Homeland Security for an expedited permanent residency pathway for IMG hospitalists. We are certain that our request will get a fair hearing, as the former U.S. surgeon general was a hospitalist and, indeed, an immigrant.