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Another Voice: Look abroad to cure Empire State's doctor shortage

By Dr. Fred M. Jacobs

New York is in the market for some more doctors. More than 5.8 million New Yorkers live in nearly 200 “health professional shortage areas” – federally designated regions with an insufficient number of primary care providers. The Empire State needs more than 1,200 additional primary care doctors to eliminate this shortage.

New York’s medical schools are graduating more than 1,800 new doctors every year. But less than half stay and practice in the state.

Graduates of international medical schools could help fill the state’s doctor shortage. Many are native New Yorkers who went abroad for medical school. They tend to be more interested in serving as primary care providers, the field where the need is greatest. It’s time we welcomed more of them home.

Hospitals and clinics are reeling due to a lack of primary care physicians. More than 80 percent of the state’s health systems struggle to recruit primary care doctors, according to a survey from the Healthcare Association of New York State.

Buffalo – the second-largest metropolitan area in the state – is designated as a health professional shortage area. Three medical practices in Buffalo and Rochester recently closed because of a shortage of primary care doctors.

These shortages will become more severe as New York’s population ages. The number of New Yorkers aged 65 or older will increase roughly 25 percent by 2040. Nearly 70 percent of seniors suffer from at least two chronic diseases, so the demand for primary care services will surely grow.

Graduates of international medical schools are well-suited to meet this rising demand. In 2018, roughly 70 percent of international medical graduates chose primary care residencies – compared to only about 40 percent of U.S. grads.

Internationally trained physicians also tend to practice in high-need areas.

Nationwide, international medical graduates compose a quarter of the doctor workforce. But in regions where the per capita income is less than $15,000, more than 40 percent of doctors were trained at institutions abroad.

Fortunately, states are taking note – and adding more international medical graduates to their physician workforces. This year, they matched for residencies in the United States at the highest rate in 25 years. St. George’s University, the school I work for, sent more than 935 graduates into first-year residency programs. More than 280 will begin their medical careers in New York – three-quarters of them in primary care.

Elected officials are doing their part to narrow the doctor shortage and increase opportunities for physicians educated at home and abroad. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has co-sponsored the Physician Shortage Reduction Act, which would add 15,000 more residency spots nationwide. And earlier this year, Assemblyman William A. Barclay introduced a bill that would create 50 new state-funded residency spots in underserved areas.

New York is suffering from a severe doctor shortage. International medical graduates will be the ones to solve it.

Fred M. Jacobs, MD, is executive vice president of St. George’s University.

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