Even though I’m not a clinician, I have great appreciation for how long and challenging the education and training process is for the members of our health care workforce. So, the idea of going through that process twice is daunting, to say the least. However, it’s the reality for a good number of refugees and immigrants who train to be physicians or nurses in their home country and then relocate to the U.S.—whether by choice or by chance.
One of my favorite books, Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, follows a Burundian medical student who escaped genocide to seek safety in the United States. He eventually retrained to become a physician in New York City, but faced challenges at every turn. Stories like these highlight the barriers facing new arrivals, such as transitioning to a new language, society, and cultural norms, while attempting to participate in the already long and arduous process of medical education. They also reveal an underutilized supply of health care professionals that could play an important role in reducing our workforce shortages. And, they speak to our resiliency as humans when faced with insurmountable odds.
The Spring Institute’s Colorado Welcome Back program has assisted foreign-trained health care professionals—about 198 refugees and immigrants from 39 countries since 2010—in re-establishing careers in health care in Colorado. They work with both high level practitioners, like physicians and nurses, but also with medical technicians and patient navigators. They assist with studying, developing resumes, and practicing interviewing; and, they provide cultural workshops to aid in transitioning to a new culture.
It’s the right thing to do to give these individuals the chance to start fresh, contribute to their new community in an important way, and reach economic stability for themselves and their families. Beyond that, however, there is an interesting benefit to our health care system as well. The diversity of languages and cultures that our refugee and immigrant workers bring to our health care system strengthens our collective ability to care for patients who come from different backgrounds. As the Colorado Welcome Back program states, these kinds of relationships have the “potential to improve patient compliance, lower hospital readmission rates, and ultimately lead to cost savings.” In short, it improves our workforce in the best of all possible ways.
The diversity of our health care workforce is even more essential when we consider that Colorado is home to almost 500,000 foreign-born individuals, which includes about 182,000 naturalized citizens, 48,000 refugees, and many more who hold worker visas or have other immigration statuses. These patients need culturally-appropriate health care, and it can be difficult to find a provider who can relate to their experiences and values. By diversifying the health care workforce through the under-tapped pipeline of newly-immigrated health professionals, we are better positioned to care for all Colorado’s patients.
Taking care of our community requires inclusiveness. It requires providing for a diverse set of needs, but it also requires providing opportunities for everyone to contribute in the way they best are able. I’m glad Colorado is finding ways to open doors to a more diverse health care workforce!