Coping Strategies for Foreign Medical Graduate Students

Some may argue that the journey to residency for Foreign Medical Students is equally challenging to that of American medical students, but this opinion lacks acknowledgement of the challenges Foreign Medical Students face when transitioning to a residency along with a new country.

While certain struggles, such as communication and culture are similar throughout time, foreign medical students also face hurdles such as constant political change. For instance, executive orders introducing travel bans can complicate visa processes. Many hurdles are well-beyond the control of the student, which is why it is important to develop coping strategies to maintain focus while navigating a medical system that can hold biases against foreign students.

Potential Struggles for FMGs

  1. 1. Communication: The most obvious struggle for Foreign Medical Graduates is communication barriers. While FMGs are required to pass a language proficiency test such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) in order to obtain ECFMG Certification, passing this test does not eliminate all language struggles. In fact, an acceptable score on the TOEFL means a student is fluent and capable of conversation professionally in their profession, but they still may struggle with the language nuances developed among native speakers. This can be frustrating for students, professionals and patients. If the student is not careful to clarify any misunderstandings, this can lead to medical errors and unacceptable mistakes. As a result, communication can be a big struggle for FMGs.
  2. 2. Culture: A foreign country may have very different cultural norms than the cultural norms of America, which is not bad but can present challenges during interviews and professional processes. For instance, one country may find assertiveness to be a rude attribute, while it may be considered a strength in an American interview. Handshakes may be perceived differently in other areas of the world. The details of these differences are not as important as the fact that they cause added stress for FMGs in uncertainty and newness.
  3. 3. Team Work: Team work is essential in the healthcare field, and it can be difficult to insert oneself into a team when presented with communication and cultural differences. Additionally, once in a team setting, it is easy to fade into the background and not be a quality participant in the team. Not only must Foreign Medical Students have the courage to join teams, but they must conquer their fears of making communication and cultural mistakes in order to become a valued team member.
  4. 4. Logistics: On top of communication and culture, which can greatly impact one’s ability to engage in team work, FMGs must ensure that they are handling all the details of their transition to another country. As mentioned previously, things like visas can become complicated by political agendas. In addition, it can be difficult to develop a strategy for applying to residencies because it often involves a careful balance of applying to residencies that are known to accept FMGs without neglecting the residencies a FMG is truly passionate about. Organization, strategy, and perseverance is integral during this time, but it adds stress that the traditional medical student from America does not face.

Coping Strategies

There are many other struggles FMGs face, and many of them are unique to the student and their home country, but inherent in all of these struggles is increased stress that can negatively impact the outcomes of residency placement. That is why FMGs must develop coping strategies to handle stress and keep their minds focused on the goal.

  1. 1. Personal Resources: One of the most important strengths that a FMG can develop is personal resources. These are skills and actions that one takes in order to avoid fatigue and burnout, which can create an abrupt end to residency pursuits. For example, a FMG may practice breathing techniques, yoga or meditation in order to center himself or herself on his goals. FMGs may need to take personal time to reconnect with their own lives, which may seem displaced in a different country. Music can be a valuable reminder of home. There are endless possibilities when it comes to personal resources, and it is important that FMGs identify these resources prior to the time when they are needed. In this way, they will be emotionally prepared for stressful transitions.
  2. 2. Social Support: Alternatively, social support can be as essential as personal resources. It is very easy to hide from social interactions when faced with communication and cultural differences, but this actually increases stress for the inevitable social interactions that will need to take place for successful residency placement. Orientation and acculturation programs are available to assist FMGs in mixing American culture with that of their own, so they can achieve residency placement success without discarding their own traditions completely.

It is essential to FMGs that they remember their own cultural identities while blending that with American culture in order to provide effective care that is in line with American Medical School standards. It is a stressful challenge to maintain both the past identity of a home country while integrating that with American culture. This is why FMGs must focus on coping strategies, which will become easy to implement when needed if they are developed in preparation to stressors instead of on an as-needed basis.

U.S. Clinical Electives/Clerkships Increase Confidence and Confirm Education

Foreign medical graduates make up 25 percent of the working physicians in the United States, yet the U.S. does not have standardized accreditations for these medical schools. As a result, the quality of the education received abroad has been questioned by policymakers and voters. That is not to say that foreign medical schools are not of high quality, but foreign medical students seeking U.S. residencies have difficulties with successful placements if they cannot prove U.S. clinical experience. This is why U.S. clinical electives/clerkships are integral to the education process.

The outlook for foreign medical graduate’s placement in U.S. residency programs is good. In 2010, 2,881 non-U.S. citizen foreign medical graduates were placed into residency programs, but that number increased to 3,641 in 2015. That is 760 more filled positions by non-U.S. citizens. This is not what was originally predicted, and the outlook was predicted to be negative for non-U.S. citizens. However, the National Residents Matching Program (NRMP) has determined the cause of the increase in non-citizen medical graduate placements to be the shortage of U.S. medical graduates to fill the positions. There are simply not enough graduates to fill the available positions. This is good for foreign medical students, but they still have to be able to prove quality education.

Residency directors have acknowledged difficulty placing non-U.S. graduates do to non-standardized education measures, but there may also be biases present among some who simply don’t know if foreign medical schools are producing the quality of residents desired. This is why clinical electives/clerkships work so well: they give non-U.S trained medical students clinical experience under well-reputed Attending Physicians. This results in multiple benefits when it comes to applying for residency programs and interviewing during the Match process.

In order to be placed into a residency of choice, a foreign medical graduate must prove that their educational experience was exceptional and that they are ready to work hands-on as a medical provider. Without clear clinical experience during medical school, a challenging process becomes nearly impossible. Especially for the foreign medical student who is dealing with the cultural changes of an American society, the lack of U.S. clinical experience can cripple an interview for a residency. In contrast, clinical experience within the U.S. assures directors that a foreign medical student has had the chance to apply his or her knowledge and skills in the U.S. medical system, and it makes abilities confirmable. Not only are interviewers assured of a candidate’s ability, but the candidate is able to communicate in a more confident manner. Clinical electives/clerkships pave the way for residency placement.

Not only is U.S. clinical experience a way to influence residency program directors to choosing foreign medical students, but so is the word of U.S. physicians. In an effective clinical elective/clerkship setting, a medical student should be able to gain multiple letters of recommendation (LORs). Letters of recommendation can be the tipping point for directors who need a bit more assurance that medical training has been sufficient. Glowing letters of recommendation from Attending Physicians at teaching hospitals are like a giant stamp of approval for interviewers who need sound confirmation of a candidate’s experience.

Finding a clinical elective/clerkship can be done through FMG Portal. Through FMG Portal, a foreign medical student seeking clinical electives in the U.S. has access to many tools to aid him or her through the process. These services include USMLE preparation assistance, experience with Attending Physicians who are ACGME-affiliated, Visa Embassy Interview Assistance, help with accommodations and a simple, monthly payment program. Students are able to experience outpatient and inpatient situations, and core specialties along with sub-specialties are offered. Most-importantly, the Attending Physicians that students will work with are seasoned professionals, and their recommendations will be influential.

The benefits of clinical electives/clerkships are undeniable, and they give confidence to foreign medical students who need experience in the U.S. to prepare themselves for the Match and residency interviews. They also serve the needed purpose of confirming the quality of education received abroad. Again, there is no denying the fact that there is quality education abroad, but residency directors must be able to confirm that education has been fulfilled in a way that meets or exceeds the quality of U.S. medical schools. That is why getting some clinical experience in the U.S. prior to graduation is a good way to guarantee success.

While it is worth noting the potential biases and discrimination that foreign medical graduates may receive when applying to residencies, it is also worth noting their advantages. Foreign medical graduates have a different perspective when it comes to applying medical knowledge, which may include more education along the lines of infectious disease or among cultures that exist in the U.S. but are not specifically targeted in the U.S. medical school system. There are definite advantages to foreign medical schools, but it must be coupled with U.S. experience in order to make a U.S. residency match a probability.

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Ranking and Marketing: Getting a Residency Match as a Foreign Medical Graduate

Registering for The Match through the NRMP begins September 15, 2018. International Medical Graduates (IMGs) should have ECFMG certification in progress, as it is due by the rank order list deadline of February 20, 2019. The ECFMG provides the NRMP with confirmation that USMLE exams have been passed and that applicants are eligible for The Match. It serves as a Dean’s office for all foreign students to ensure that they meet the standards to qualify for a residency program.

The Match

The NRMP facilitates the ranking and placement of medical students into residency programs, but they are not in charge of program requirements or supported visa types. Applicants to each program must pay careful attention to whether or not the program accepts IMGs and the deadlines for sponsoring visas if applicable. The majority of residencies participate in the NRMP, but it is not a requirement.

Do IMGs have less opportunity for a match?

Foreign medical graduates have a history of obtaining less first-year residency matches than U.S. medical graduates, but the numbers are improving. First-year residency matches went from a 53.3% match rate in 2017 to a 56.5% match rate in 2018. This rate has been steadily increasing over the past decade.

The reasons for the lower number of first-year residency matches may not be warranted, but they still exist. Some program directors may have unfounded judgements about the quality of training abroad, but this is a stigma based on archaic thinking rather than facts. A more reasonable explanation may be that international programs differ from U.S. programs, so they are difficult to compare. Transcripts and academic achievements from different countries with different curricula are challenging to fully understand because they differ from the standard U.S. curriculum. While this creates a challenge to obtaining a match, it also opens a window of opportunity to market oneself during the application and interview process.

Market your Abilities and Stand Out Above the Rest

Applications are a starting point to combat any biases that may emerge during the application process. Program directors need to know that an applicant has proper training, skill and experience. A high score on the USMLE may be the first thing evaluated on an application from an IMG, but there are additional ways to stand out. Another way to stand out is by submitting letters of recommendation by U.S. doctors with whom an applicant has worked closely. Letters that clearly explain clinical abilities and provide examples of it will have a big impact on program directors. Supporting documents such as letters of recommendation and transcripts will be transmitted to ERAS applications through ECFMG.

A second way to improve the odds of a match is aggressive marketing. Applying to many schools is one tactic to increase odds, but 5 to 10 top picks deserve extra attention. Contact program directors and coordinators of these programs for introductions and tips prior to the interview. Those who wrote letters of recommendations may also contact program directors and give verbal recommendations. Ultimately, when applicants make themselves present in the lives of the people in the program, their applications become more meaningful, which increases the odds of a match.

Ranking Strategies

There are many strategies for ranking residencies for The Match. The ECFMG instructs applicants to rank them in the order in which they most want to attend them, which exercises the full purpose of the Match but may not yield a match. A quick internet search will provide lists of IMG-friendly specialties. Applying based on this may not be the best option for long-term career choices. There is not one clear-cut method that will guarantee a match, but some recommend a mix of high-competition residencies and low-competition residencies to improve the odds. Others recommend applying to as many residencies as possible. While one ranking strategy may work for some and not others, the application process combined with smart ranking choices will yield more positive results for Foreign Medical Graduates.

Rank Order Lists

Twenty programs are allowed to be listed on the rank order list (ROL), and 20 more can be listed on the supplemental ROL. Extra fees can be applied to place more programs on the ROL, but there can be no more than 700 listed for one applicant. The deadline for certification is 9 p.m. February 20, 2019. No changes can be made after this time, and matches are binding.

The Foreign Medical Graduate Prospective

As mentioned previously, the matches among foreign medical graduates are growing in number. Physician shortages and increased knowledge sharing from organizations such as the ECFMG are facilitating matches by matching the need for more providers with the surety that applicants are trained and skilled in their profession. It is a difficult process for all medical students and graduates, but it is a process that can be a success if a person provides proper evidence of their education and skill through documents and interviews.

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