The status of more than 4,200 foreign doctors who were chosen to do medical residencies in American teaching hospitals — hospitals that will desperately need their help to cope with Covid-19 — is in doubt because the State Department has temporarily stopped issuing the visas most of them would need to enter the country, according to a group that sponsors international medical graduates.
The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates said Monday that most of the international doctors would be relying on getting a J-1 visa to work in the United States, but processing of those visas has been put on hold by the State Department amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The doctors are scheduled to start working in the hospitals at the beginning of July. During a medical residency, medical school graduates actively work in hospitals under the supervision of senior staff.
“If these new residents are unable to get their visas, it’s going to really hamper the ability of the teaching hospitals to respond to the virus,” William Pinsky, president and CEO of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, told STAT.
The doctors learned of their assignments last Friday — so-called Match Day for medical residents.
Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of Boston University’s School of Public Health, suggested a work-around needs to be found.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic unfolding, this is not the moment to risk creating a physician shortage,” Galea said via email. “We should take steps in the US to facilitate the training and retention of medical professionals at all times, but especially now.”
Pinsky said it would not be easy to replace these 4,222 medical school graduates if they cannot make it to the United States to do their residencies. While every year some U.S. medical school graduates or U.S. citizens who graduate from medical schools outside the country are not selected for a residency program, going back to that pool is not necessarily the answer, he said.
“Technically they’re eligible … but there’s probably a reason why they didn’t match,” Pinsky said. “We do have to be careful from a quality perspective.”
The ECFMG handles the process of getting visas for foreign medical graduates who apply to do their residencies in the U.S. The organization vets them thoroughly, including by checking their credentials and ensuring there are no incidents in their history that would preclude them from getting a visa.
It also registers all applicants — it typically gets about 16,000 a year — to take the same medical exams U.S. trained doctors take, only entering them into the residency match once they have passed those exams.
Most come to the United States on a J-1 visa, a cultural exchange visa program also used by entertainers and researchers.
But embassies and consulates around the world have stopped processing the visas. And last week the State Department sent out advice to program sponsors — such as ECFMG — urging them to either cancel the programs or defer the start dates.
Pinsky said his organization has approached the State Department to warn officials there about the unintended consequence of suspending the J-1 visa program and to ask for an exemption for the foreign medical graduates. He said they were told the department would take it under advisement.
The State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment from STAT.
Pinsky said in normal times J-1 visas are not issued until 30 days before the start of a program. He also asked that that rule be waived in this case, because it may be difficult for the foreign doctors to secure flights into the United States at this point and because each would need to be quarantined for 14 days before they could start their residencies.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of foreign doctors affected by the suspension of the visa program.