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.

  • Their homw countries need them now more than ever. We also need to consider the ethical implications of taking them from their homes. One also has to wonder whether this was the first step to them permanently migrating to the United States anyway.

  • I think it’s time for unmatched applicants to prepare for another Match Season. Instead of writing hateful comments and waiting when IMGs will be rejected in visa and you will get the spot (not gonna happen). You are the reason why you have not matched and there’s a lot of work for you to do. Bye

    • X – That’s an unfair assessment of unmatched candidates. Everyone’s story is different, but you seem to be putting all the blame on the doctor and none on the system. The system is flawed. And the foreign doctor component is an issue. If 4,200 foreign doctors are brought in, and 2,000 current yr & prior yr grads aren’t matching, that’s a problem. We should prioritize our U.S. grads. And the system should be better developed so that doctors are being produced to line up where the needs are.

  • It’s time to put U.S. medical school grads who graduated in good standing, but haven’t matched, to work! In a doctor shortage that’s continually reported on and most certainly now in a pandemic!

    Each year since 2011, up to 2,000 current yr & prior yr U.S. grads haven’t matched to a residency. No residency means they can’t work as a doctor. That’s crazy. Eight years of education and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt!

    Join us. We need more people who are in this situation to come forward and tell their stories. Find us at http://www.doctorswithoutjobs.com/

    Also https://www.facebook.com/doctorswithoutjobs/

    And Twitter @DocsWithoutJobs

    Let’s make some noise about this travesty. There is power in numbers.

  • So Pinsky essentially is saying it’s ok let everyone die of COVID19 but let’s not use American Doctors (US-IMGs). Someone please explain how the match works to Pinsky because it didn’t exist when he graduated med school.

    Pinsky is an Anti-American!

    • US-IMG pay the bill to train FMG. I have no problem for FMG to get into US training, but the priority should be to US students first. If no one left-behind then seek FMG to fill the spots!

  • My story is different. US IMG, I had outstanding Step scores (Step 1 above 260, CK 250, everything passed at first try,including Step 3). Research, USCE, volunteer experiences, you name it. This is the third time I dont Match. I was interviewed every time I applied, with more interviews everytime, but no match yet. The specialty I want is very competitive but I know I am better than many candidates who have matched. During rotations I was always very cooperative, on time, helped residents wherever I could. I have answered many questions after residents did not know the answer, in many ocassions.

    In my opinion, I think the Match system is full of bias and is not the best way to select candidates. As an IMG, even if you are a US citizen, they see you as “second category”. In the end, what matters to the programs appears NOT to be the effort put as well as excellent qualifications, but instead it’s who they know or who makes them laugh. The decision is too subjective.

    Why not instead make it based on exam scores and everybody takes the same exam and give everyone the time they want to study for the exams. Or how about a system based on points, where the more publications, experiences, exam scores, add up points to an overall score and rank candidates that way. This way there is a more objective decision.

    Another thing to consider is the amount of times a candidate applies for the Match. The more times he/she does, that should be a strong criteria to consider to rank him/her higher than others, of course considering that every year the candidate improves. It’s like waiting in line for your turn to enter. Knowing that the spots available are scarce, why not taking this criteria into account? This was exactly my case.

    Also, programs should see the effort made by the IMGs in general. Many of us came long distances, sometimes with cultural or language barriers. We played the American game, took the same tests, did research, worked hard to maintain our families in many ocassions. Why not considering this when ranking candidates for the Match.

    This is why I feel the Matching system is worse than a simple overall score-based system like many other countries do. You’d ask, well why don’t we just apply to another country? Well, we are US citizens, we pay taxes regardless of where we live, and we want to receive this education. But make the selection fair.

    • You should consider another specialty. It is a shame to waist so much time with such excellent credentials, especially if you have taking student loan. Very competitive specialties such as dermatology, orthopaedics, ophthalmology and neurosurgery are impossible to get into for US citizen IMGs. Your school rating does matter when you are applying for these specialties. Do not take it personal. Most likely the programs who did not take you did not take any IMGs at all regardless their country of residence. I know many US osteopathic school graduates who also did not match for the above competitive specialties.

  • In the worst scenario they shall the applicants who have passed ECFMG along with Step3 and have some strong credentials but some unfortunate reason couldn’t match

    • Step 3 is meant to be taken during/after residency. No more games with US IMG lives. Put them in training. Let them have same opportunity as any other US docs.

  • Assume that you speak for all FMG when you post on here. I am sure that many of your colleagues would be disapproving of your post.

  • You are just toxic! The audacity to disrespect the president of the country that you hope will give you a better life. Your response speaks volumes of your character. It is unfortunate that the program director where you match didn’t see this side of you.

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