Nov 21 2013
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International Makeup of U.S. Health Care Workforce Brings Vitality, Challenges

Foreign-educated and foreign-born health professionals play a vital role in providing patient care in this country, but strategic shifts such as changes in immigration laws may be needed to stabilize the nation’s health workforce, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The two groups fill important gaps, particularly among primary care physicians, nurses in hospital settings, and other areas with worker shortages, according to findings published in the November issue of Health Affairs.

However, continuing to rely on foreign-educated and foreign-born health workers may reduce incentives for the nation to address problems such as the inadequate supply of primary care physicians. This, in turn, could lead to a less-stable U.S. health care workforce, researchers said.

“There is no cohesive national policy that outlines a strategy for how to incorporate foreign-born and foreign-trained health professionals into the U.S. workforce,” said Peggy G. Chen, MD, MS, MHS, the study’s lead author and an associate natural scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Policy changes could increase the stability of the nation’s health care workforce, while also improving the experiences of foreign-born health workers.”

The study outlines the contributions that foreign-educated and foreign-born health professionals make, including:

  • Physicians who were educated outside the United States account for about 25 percent of the U.S. physician workforce, with the largest groups being from India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.
  • Foreign-born registered nurses account for 12 percent to 15 percent of RNs in the United States, with 5.4 percent both foreign born and foreign educated. The largest number of foreign-born and foreign-educated RNs are from the Philippines, followed by Canada, India, the United Kingdom, and Nigeria.
  • Among direct-care workers, a category that includes nursing aides and home health aides, foreign-born individuals account for 20 percent to 24 percent of the workforce. The largest numbers of foreign-born direct-care workers are from Mexico, the Philippines, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. It is estimated that 20 percent of direct-care workers are undocumented immigrants.

Despite their significant representation in the workforce, foreign-born and foreign-educated health workers say they often face problems such as unethical recruitment practices, discrimination in the workplace, and difficulties navigating cultural differences. In addition, migration of health workers to the United States may leave lower-income nations with workforce shortages and weaker health systems.

Read the study in Health Affairs.
Read coverage of it in Advance for Nurses.

Tags: Nursing, Physician Workforce