OLDS: Our Grandparents Need Doctors Trained Abroad

America’s population is aging rapidly. And that means demand for health care will explode in the coming years. By 2030, one in five Americans will be older than 65. Nearly 80 percent of those seniors will suffer from two or more chronic diseases.

There aren’t enough U.S.-educated doctors to treat all these current and future patients. By 2030, the United States could be short up to 49,000 primary care doctors, according to research from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Dr. G. Richard Olds
Dr. G. Richard Olds

That’s why the United States ought to recruit more physicians educated abroad, at international medical schools, to practice here. Many of these medical doctors grew up in the United States but chose to pursue their degrees outside the country. So they’re well-equipped to treat older patients with complex health needs.

Graduates of international medical schools already care for millions of American seniors. In Florida, whose population has the highest share of seniors of any state, more than one-third of doctors went to medical school abroad. In Arizona, which also boasts an above-average share of seniors, one in four doctors studied overseas.

International medical graduates, or IMGs, are more likely than U.S.-educated doctors to treat older Americans with complex needs. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital recently reported that patients treated by IMGs were sicker, on average, than patients treated by U.S.-medical school graduates.

IMGs also provide higher-quality care. Medicare patients seen by IMGs experience lower mortality rates than those treated by physicians from U.S. medical schools, according to a study in the British Medical Journal.

International med school graduates are also more likely than their U.S.-educated peers to choose careers in primary care, where the shortage of qualified medical personnel is greatest. Last year, nearly 70 percent of IMGs selected residencies in primary care. Less than 40 percent of U.S.-medical school graduates did so.

This disparity underscores America’s need for IMGs. Primary care doctors play a vital role in diagnosing seniors’ ailments and triaging their care. Medicare beneficiaries in areas with lots of primary care physicians suffer fewer hospitalizations and lower mortality rates than beneficiaries in areas with fewer providers, according to a JAMA study.

Fortunately, international medical graduates are increasingly launching their careers in this country. Last year, IMGs matched for residencies in the United States at the highest rate since 1993.

Nearly 1,000 graduates of the school I lead, St. George’s University in Grenada, secured a U.S. residency last year. That makes our school the top provider of new doctors to the U.S. health care system. Three in four St. George’s graduates go into primary care.

As America grays, its health care system will need more physicians to treat its growing population of seniors. U.S. medical schools aren’t producing enough of them. International schools are. All America needs to do is welcome them in.

Olds is founding dean of UC Riverside School of Medicine and current president of St. George’s University.

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