Public Policy

COVID-19 pandemic amplifies uncertainty for immigrant hospitalists

H1-B visa program needs improvement


 

Statistics tell the tale of immigrants in the American health care workforce in broad strokes. In an interview, though, one hospitalist shared the particulars of his professional and personal journey since arriving in the United States from India 15 years ago.

Dr. Mihir Patel in PPE.

Mihir Patel, MD, MPH, FHM, came to the United States in 2005 to complete a Master’s in Public Health. Fifteen years later, he is still waiting for the green card that signifies U.S. permanent residency status. The paperwork for the application, he said, was completed in 2012. Since then, he’s been renewing his H-1B visa every three years, and he has no expectation that anything will change soon.

“If you are from India, which has a significant backlog of green cards – up to 50 years…you just wait forever,” he said. “Many people even die waiting for their green card to arrive.”

Arriving on a student visa, Dr. Patel completed his MPH in 2008 and began an internal medicine residency that same year, holding a J-1 visa for the 3 years of his US residency program.

“Post-residency, I started working in a rural hospital in an underserved area of northeast Tennessee as a hospitalist,” thus completing the 3 years of service in a rural underserved area that’s a requirement for J-1 visa holders, said Dr. Patel. “I loved this rural community hospital so much that I ended up staying there for 6 years. During my work at this rural hospital, I was able to enjoy the autonomy of managing a small ICU, doing both critical care procedures and management of intubated critical patients while working as a hospitalist,” he said. Dr. Patel served as chief of staff at the hospital for two years, and also served on the board of directors for his 400-physician medical group.

“I was a proud member of this rural community – Rogersville,” said Dr. Patel. Although he and his wife, who was completing her hospitalist residency, lived in Johnson City, Tenn., “I did not mind driving 120 miles round trip every day to go to my small-town hospital for 6 years,” he said.

Spending this time in rural Tennessee allowed Dr. Patel to finish the requirements necessary for the Physician National Interest Waiver and submit his application for permanent residency. The waiver, though, doesn’t give him priority status in the waiting list for permanent residency status.

After a stint in northern California to be closer to extended family, the pull of “beautiful northeast Tennesse and the rural community” was too strong, so Dr. Patel and his family moved back to Johnson City in 2018.

Dr. Mihir Patel on a telehealth monitor.

Now, Dr. Patel is a hospitalist at Ballad Health System in Johnson City. He is the corporate director of Ballad’s telemedicine program and is now also the medical director of the COVID-19 Strike Team. He co-founded and is president of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Society of Hospital Medicine. Under another H-1B visa, Dr. Patel works part-time from home as a telehospitalist, covering six hospitals in 4 different states.

Even in ordinary circumstances, the H-1B visa comes with constraints. Although Dr. Patel’s 6-year old daughter was born in the U.S. and is a citizen, Dr. Patel and his wife have to reapply for their visas every 3 years. “If we travel outside the U.S., we have to get our visas stamped. We cannot change jobs easily due to fear of visa denial, especially with the recent political environment,” said Dr. Patel. “It feels like we are essential health care workers but non-essential immigrants.”

Having recently completed a physician executive MBA program, Dr. Patel said he’d like to start a business of his own using Lean health care principles and telemedicine to improve rural health care. “But while on an H-1B I cannot do anything outside my sponsored employment,” he said.

Ideally, health care organizations would have high flexibility in how and where staff are deployed when a surge of COVID-19 patients hits. Dr. Patel made the point that visa restrictions can make this much harder: “During this COVID crisis, this restriction can cause significant negative impact for small rural hospitals, where local physicians are quarantined and available physicians are on a visa who cannot legally work outside their primary facilities – even though they are willing to work,” he said. “One cannot even work using telemedicine in the same health system, if that is not specifically mentioned during H-1B petition filling. More than 15,000 physicians who are struck by the green card backlog are in the same situation all over U.S.,” he added.

These constraints, though, pale before the consequences of a worst-case pandemic scenario for an immigrant family, where the physician – the primary visa-holder – becomes disabled or dies. In this case, dependent family members must self-deport. “In addition, there would not be any disability or Social Security benefits for the physician or dependents, as they are not citizens or green card holders and they cannot legally stay in the US,” noted Dr. Patel. “Any hospitalist working during the COVID-19 pandemic can have this fate due to our high exposure risk.”

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