According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. will face a doctor shortage of around 100,000 by the year 2030 if something is not done to increase new residency positions.

The shortage is happening because of an ever-growing population but also because the amount of new medical school graduates allowed into residency programs has not kept up with the pace of population growth. Why would anyone restrict residency positions in a time of projected shortages? The answer is all about the budget and how much the government will fund positions in teaching hospitals.

Thankfully, 2019 has presented some hope for residents with the introduction of the “Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2019.” This bill would open 15,000 funded residency positions within the next five years.

One of the shortages bills like the Resident Physicians Shortage Reduction Act plan to address is the rural physician shortage. A Becker’s Hospital Review article states that 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, and the doctor shortage is revealed in their ratios compare to this population. For every rural physician, there are 2,500 rural residents.

Why is a Rural Physician Shortage a Health Crisis?

One might think the rural physician shortage is not a significant problem. After all, people do go to urban areas to shop, and they choose to live at a long distance from health care services. However, many rural communities are poor communities, so they have difficulty with travel costs. Additionally, many elderly persons live in rural communities, and they may face transportation difficulties as they age out of the driving population.

More importantly, people are unlikely to seek out cost-saving preventive health services if they are not conveniently located. They may also put off subsequent visits meant to monitor chronic health conditions. Telemedicine has attempted to bridge some of this health care gap for rural areas with telemonitors and telehealth services, but often rural communities have technology knowledge gaps and limited access to these services.

If you have ever lived in a rural community, you might understand the importance of the local physician. Everyone in the town depends on him or her for everyday health needs, and if that person retires or moves, it can stress the entire community. There needs to be motivation for physicians to train and work in the rural health care sector in order to decrease this disparity.

What Does this Mean for Foreign Medical Graduates?

For years, there has been tension between people who want to support U.S. medical graduates and those who recognize the need to fill the doctor shortage with foreign medical graduates (FMGs). As the physician shortage continues to grow, the benefits of FMGs are becoming recognized. In the past few years, there have been articles  noting the abilities of FMGs rather than only the need for them to fill the shortage. Ultimately, the U.S. is realizing that they need FMGs in order to deliver proper healthcare to all of its residents and visitors. Now, they just have to make it easier for them to get residency positions and practice in the U.S.

Rural J-1 Visa Waiver

The Rural Health Information Hub is an organization that supports the improvement of rural health services across American, and they have one page on their site dedicated to information about the J-1 Visa Waiver, an opportunity for foreign medical graduates to remain in the United States.

With a J-1 visa, a resident must return to his or her country following residency and then apply for a H1-B visa, which will allow them to work in the U.S. If a resident is willing to work in a rural community, they can apply for a waiver, and this allows that resident to stay in the U.S. to work. This is a mutually beneficial situation for rural community members who need a quality physician and the FMG who will have much less red tape to get through.

Saving Lives by Improving Access

Studies show that people who live in rural areas are more likely to die from everything from treatable chronic diseases to accidents where they cannot reach timely access to care. Increasing the number of rural physicians would help to improve these numbers.

As a FMG, you may be wanting to work in an urban area with access to high-technology and physicians who are working with the best resources available. However, it can be difficult to dodge all of the red tape that it takes to get to stay in the country after residency. Considering working in the rural area for a short while will not only give you a unique experience, but it will also allow you to practice in the states immediately after residency instead of postponing your career until you can apply for your H1-B visa.

Rural health is not only an opportunity for Foreign Medical Graduates to stay in the United States following their graduate education, but it is also a chance to save lives. Rural communities do not have access to the resources of the city, and one resource that can be brought these underserved areas are physicians.

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