Opinion: Immigrants hold the key to solving New York’s health worker shortage

Thousands are already trained and experienced medical professionals who could fill this gap.

Mohammed Shahidul Islam

Mohammed Shahidul Islam (Image courtesy of Mohammed Shahidul Islam)

New York’s healthcare workforce is in crisis. Our hospitals are grappling to solve decades of staffing shortage and unsustainable operational budgets. More than 75% of New York hospitals struggle to fill key positions. Meanwhile, the state has less than 40% of the number of primary care professionals needed to serve its population. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this challenge, forcing more and more health workers to leave the field and further jeopardizing the quality of care.

Yet within these bleak statistics is a bright light. New York is home to thousands of trained, experienced medical professionals who could fill this gap – they just have credentials from other countries. By giving New Yorkers with international credentials and experiences the opportunity to resume their careers, we could close this critical gap and ensure our residents have access to the care they need.

New York has long been a beacon of hope for immigrant communities and immigrants form a crucial part of our workforce. Immigrant workers have served on the front line to provide healthcare for our residents, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet systemic barriers – including the lack of recognition of academic or professional credentials earned abroad – prevent them from continuing to provide this vital care.

It’s time for New York to live up to its reputation as a welcoming state for immigrants and apply sensible strategies to address the existing shortage of healthcare workers.

As a doctor who graduated from a high-ranking medical school in Bangladesh and who has years of experience helping New York’s vulnerable patients, I know first-hand that immigrants and refugees are ready and eager to contribute their skills to create a healthier future for our state, if only they have the opportunity to do so. Currently, thousands of potential health providers in New York are unemployed or working in positions that don’t allow them to make full use of their skills.

Bills sponsored by state Senator Andrew Gounades and Assembly Member Karines Reyes take a crucial step forward by removing hurdles facing immigrants and refugees with medical credentials from other countries, enabling them to obtain a limited, renewable permit to practice medicine in the state. Unless this policy is passed, many internationally trained physicians may lose their permits as soon as May. 

Many immigrants must work one or more low-wage jobs (often the only ones obtainable upon arrival in the U.S.) to support themselves and their families, leaving little to no time to navigate the almost insurmountable barriers they face when trying to apply international training and skills to the U.S. workforce. Even experienced physicians like me must spend tens of thousands of dollars to repeat medical exams and residency in order to practice medicine. Despite years of experience in the medical field, I will have to give up my career if there is no pathway to continue practicing medicine in New York. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars to repeat medical exams and residency. Unfortunately, as an immigrant, I know I'm not alone in this.

The bills proposed by Gounades and Reyes’ will not only allow thousands of immigrants and refugees to resume their careers, but will also help New York state fill the thousands of job openings at our hospitals and health centers – jobs that are critical to the health of our state. Our leaders can, and must, pass these bills for the benefit of all New Yorkers.

Immigrants are vital to the health of New York’s people and economy. There are thousands of us with the experience needed to address our state’s healthcare workforce shortages. Our leaders need to act now to allow us to close those gaps, contribute to our communities and provide care to patients across the state. Creating a pathway for immigrants and refugees to utilize their professional skills is a necessary step in creating a healthier, more welcoming and more prosperous future for all of our people in New York.

Mohammed Shahidul Islam is a doctor in New York who graduated from a high-ranking medical school in Bangladesh.