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UCLA Program Drives Healthcare Access with Immigrant Docs

The program enlists legal immigrant medical students to fill in healthcare access gaps throughout California.

UCLA has a program to fill healthcare access gaps throughout California with legal immigrant medical graduates.

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The UCLA International Medical Graduate Program aims to assist legal immigrants in obtaining their US board certification and funnel more clinicians toward medically-underserved regions that want for healthcare access.

The program enrolls legal immigrants from Latin American countries who have completed medical school outside of the United States, Puerto Rico, or Canada. These individuals often struggle to obtain medical licensure upon immigration to the US and end up practicing or working below their education level, a situation UCLA experts call “brain waste.”

The International Medical Graduate Program works to reduce that issue by enrolling medical school graduates in a six- to 24-month program that prepares students for medical board exams and helps them gain a three-year family medicine residency in California.

Most students perform their residencies in underserved areas within the state, including rural Northern California, the Inland Empire, the San Joaquin Valley area, and vulnerable parts of Los Angeles.

The program also offers students a stipend so they can focus on passing the board exam and not split their attention with a part-time job.

READ MORE: What Providers Should Know to Improve Patient Access to Healthcare

Upon program and residency completion, International Medical Graduate Program participants agree to work in a medically-underserved area for two to three years. These professionals often end up working in medically-underserved areas after they complete their obligation.

“Of all the individuals who have graduated from our program, who could go work wherever they wanted to after meeting their requirements, 75 percent of them remained in the underserved communities,” said program Executive Director and Co-Founder Michelle Bholat, MD. “That is a remarkable statistic and is a win-win for the doctors and their patients who so desperately rely on their care.”

This program is not only an opportunity for immigrant medical students to obtain training in the US, but is also a good strategy for mitigating the physician shortage that is plaguing California and the entire nation.

A physician shortage is defined as fewer than one primary care physician for every 3,000 to 3,500 patients, according to HHS. California has 607 medically-underserved areas, impacting 6.7 million patients’ ability to access healthcare.

Immigrant patients, and those with limited English language proficiency, also have difficulty accessing healthcare, even when there are ample physicians practicing in an area. Language barriers keep patients from having meaningful conversations with their providers. Patients with exacerbated language barriers may not even manage to get in the clinic door, let alone in front of a doctor.

READ MORE: Senate Bill Boosts Patient Access to Care in Rural Regions

The International Medical Graduate Program aims to reduce this care access barrier by enrolling a number of bilingual students. The program enlists students from primarily Latin American countries, and their knowledge of both English and Spanish will help the nearly 6.6 million limited English proficient patients across California, UCLA said.

Jose Javier Hernandez, MD, a program graduate, has seen these benefits first hand. Originally from Mexico, Hernandez is a first-year resident who is currently practicing in a rural part of California.

“The need for medical care here is overwhelming,” Hernandez said in a UCLA statement. “So many of my patients have avoided the doctor for years because of language and cultural barriers. Now, they know there is someone who can care for them who knows the language, knows the cultures and shares their heritage. It’s so rewarding knowing how much of a difference I am making in their lives.”

This UCLA initiative is a micro version of a bill that is currently circulating Congress. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have introduced legislation to extend the Conrad State Waiver 30 program. This program allows state legislatures to extend visa waivers to foreign clinicians to practice in federally-designated, medically-underserved areas. 

The bills propose to extend the program into 2021.

READ MORE: Bill Targets Patient Access to Pharmacy Care in Rural Areas

These bipartisan bills aim to keep American-trained and skilled clinicians in the country at a time where patients are facing a growing clinician shortage, said Dan Schneider, one of the House bill’s co-sponsors. The US is expecting a 100,000 clinician shortage by 2030.

“The American medical education system attracts top international talent and produces the best-trained graduates in the world,” Schneider said.

“It makes no sense to force these highly-skilled new doctors out of the country at a time when many of our communities struggle to attract medical professionals,” he continued. “Extending the Conrad 30 visa waiver program is a commonsense step toward ensuring all Americans have access to quality health care providers.”

Both bills have been introduced to Congress. In the House, the bill has been reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.

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