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.

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“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.

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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.

  • There is a very simple way that this physician shortage and healthcare worker shortage can be fixed. The qualified individuals are there to be put into work, but the bureaucracy needs to open their eyes and allow hard working people do the job. There are tons of Americans who do not match and further more there are people who have matched but had to leave residency for one reason or another who may be able to participate now that should be allowed to practice. Either say there is a shortage and fix it with this solution or just say there is no shortage.

  • American citizens US or IMG should have the first match then SOAP for non US citizens- how about that? The students here have loans, since they don’t match they get depressed and possibly could hurt themselves. How could he say there is a reason why they didn’t match! These doctors are fine I’ve seen their knowledge and capabilities. Stop assuming foreigners are do much better than our own people! 4222 coming to this country but we have about 2000 of our own that need placements.

    • that a ridiculous resolution, if you look at the charting outcomes, average for a us img who did not match is 212 on step 1 and 222 on step 2, if you look at non-us img’s who did match their step 1 was 234 and step 2 was 240!!! I would take a doctor with those significantly higher scores anyway regardless of location. In addition, the interview is a huge aspect as to how we rank, you’d be surprised how may more interviews we give out to US citizens and non-us imgs have there work cut out for them. Of those 2 thousand who didn’t match, a significant amount has some sort of red flag, a course failure, attending and being dismissed for 1 or more medical schools, repeated USMLE exams or a personality that is not suited for our program. Being a PD for 8 years now we have a very well formulated selection process and are happy with our residents each year. I want a resident who is willing to do whatever needed to ensure patient safety. In addition, many of our patients are from countries across so why shouldn’t our doctors. There are some 35-40 thousand residency positions each year, 80% are US citizens, those who don’t match usually have a reason for it, some are unlucky majority can be blamed. Americans will eat food from all across the world, have things shipped to them from all across the world and basically almost everything you rely on is from places across the world but you have an issue with 4000 very highly educated students doctors from across the world that want to contribute to the US medical system and become American just like all of your ancestors once upon a time. These doctors have helped develop the healthcare system you abuse today, have made medical advances that have saved millions at some point in time. If you want America to continue being the greatest country you need people of these skills. And I am aware some US citizens who don’t match are truly unlucky, but I am talking about the majority. And maybe someday these young US doctors will become well trained and able to manage patients, but you are the patient and the patients family, you want the very best for your loved ones and that is what we want in out programs. Those who do not match first year can match the subsequent year(s), they just come back next year with a better application and better preparedness, it’s not like their degree is useless. Finally, those non-us citizens who do match have often gone through multiple rounds of match cycles.

  • why is this country all about helping others, charity begin at home. unless ecfmg is getting lot kick back, or making money like a union, they should not be pushing noncitizen img . They are residents , they are in training. As a doctor, I have seen and experience in working with both. Parents of the american citizen, pay lot of money in taxes. Do the foreigners pay any taxes?. NO other country pick outsiders over their own people like America. American medical association is always been a useless organization. They need to step up and give our own children a chance, if we don’t who will? How dare some say quality is the reason some didn’t get matched. Give them a chance, they will prove their worth.

  • Hi – nice read. Look at the states like Missouri and Arkansas who allow, currently, MDs like myself with no residency to practice as Associate/Asst.Physicians. This is the way these states are combating physician shortages. It is something to look at in our current Covid-10 reality based on exacerbated medical staff shortages. There are 1000s of US citizens who attended a foreign medical school (like myself) who have their MD degrees and who would like to help…

  • With all due respect your assessment of unmatched pool of well qualified Doctors that didn’t match in 2020 is simply not correct. You are spreading inaccurate information . Just because an IMG or a local grad did not match dies not mean that are incompetent. There are thousands of well qualified Physicians that did not match the first or even second time they applied for residencies. There is no reason why this pool should not be tapped to save lives. I am an American and believe that before we start importing any foreign Nationals we should most definitely put these competent hard working dedicated Doctors to work.

    • I completely agree! Just because an individual did not match it does not mean the onus is on them. I think we should be taking a look at the larger problem which is the system; there are not enough residency positions for everyone who applies. This is the only profession where you can pass all your exams but still cannot practice because the government has placed a cap on residency positions.
      Could you imagine a lawyer passing the bar and then still not able to practice law? Or a nurse finishing nursing school and now cannot work as a nurse?
      It’s really inexcusable that there are US residents that have graduated from an international school or a US -based school but cannot get their first job as a physician and instead they wait and hope to match sooner or later…

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