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Doctors Facing Borders

By: CARRA | February 28, 2017 | What Caught Our Eye

A couple weeks ago, our administrator received an email that sent our division into panic. The title of the email was “URGENT,” in all caps, followed by three exclamation points. It was a warning of a possible draft of a new executive order that would limit entry into the US of individuals from yet another list of countries, this one including the country of origin of our first-year fellow. The past several weeks of drama and confusion over the recent executive order for a 90-day ‘travel ban’ of citizens from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa has put into relief an important sector of medical providers in the US: international medical graduates or IMGs.

National interest in a case of a Cleveland Clinic doctor, who was barred and then allowed re-entry into the States and a handful of other similar stories, have led to discussions both in and out of medical communities about the role of IMGs in the American medical system.

The New England Journal of Medicine ran two pieces back to back, that described the vast number of international residents and faculty that contribute to patient care and biomedical research in the US, the arduous and costly path they take to get to their positions, and the impact that barring these people from entry to the US might have on the future of American medicine. It turns out that last year, remarkably greater than 50% of matched internal medicine residents were IMGs.

Data from the American Board of Pediatrics shows that 22% of the pediatric residents who took the general boards were IMGs. IMGs are more likely to go into pediatric subspecialties than American medical graduates, and 41% of physicians that sat for the pediatric rheumatology boards were IMGs.

The American College of Rheumatology’s 2015 Workforce Report paints a similar picture: 43% of trainees in pediatric rheumatology are IMGs. What also bears mentioning, is that they project that by 2030 we will need twice as many pediatric rheumatologists in the US to cover the demand. Almost half (18 out of 40) of the fellowship positions in pediatric rheumatology went unmatched in 2015, with only 27 applicants going into the match. In a survey from the ACR Fellows-in-Training committee, 76% of IMG pediatric rheumatology fellows planned to continue to practice in the US.

For those trainees who eventually return to their countries of origin, in some cases the value of their contribution may be arguably greater. If our goal is to produce practitioners for children across the globe with rheumatic diseases, ponder for a second that as of 2014 there were only 5 pediatric rheumatologists in South Africa and fewer than 10 in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Regardless of your feelings about how the borders of the United States should be controlled, the inescapable fact is that these doctors play a vital role in serving US patients, particularly in fields such as pediatric rheumatology, where shortages exist and are only projected to get worse. And regardless of whether this or any new revised executive order on immigration (reportedly in the works) will impact IMGs to the US, I think it is worthwhile to start a dialogue about how, as a community, we will press forward with our mission of collaborative research and care and our vision of “a world free of limitations from pediatric rheumatic diseases” in a world where borders may be more difficult to traverse.

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