August 20, 2023

Refugee Physicians: The Untapped Resource That Could Help Solve the U.S. Doctor Shortage

By Brandi Kilmer
Photography By Jonah Peterson
Doctor shortage

Imagine being a skilled professional–a doctor even–respected in your field. And then war erupts, displacing you from your home, your family, your livelihood, your identity.

When such a physician arrives in the United States, their credentials and expertise are erased and they must study for, and pass three United States Medical Licensure Exams (USMLEs), each of which involves fees and lengthy study programs. In addition, they must complete a residency program (1 year in Virginia or 2 years in Maryland) which are extremely competitive. Given the low-income, high-living expense lifestyles refugee doctors face upon arrival, these are steep barriers to overcome. Their Story is Our Story (TSOS) is working to make these obstacles surmountable.

In November 2022, TSOS partnered with first year medical students from the Georgetown School of Medicine to interview seven refugee physicians from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Since that time, I’ve personally met with a number of other refugee physicians, each with a passion for returning to patient care and sadly - each working well below their skill level. Some are Uber drivers. Others are working long shifts as medical assistants or EMTs for $18 per hour. Last month, I met an Afghan surgeon who was involved with the first successful separation of conjoined twins in Afghanistan. Today, after having been in Virginia since August 2021, he is hoping to finally begin a job as a medical translator (with inconsistent pay and no medical benefits).

The longing these doctors have to return to meaningful work has fueled me to use their stories to advocate for better medical career solutions. Through leveraging my connections, TSOS’s original partnership with the Georgetown School of Medicine and Nova Friends of Refugees has evolved into a growing DMV Refugee Physicians Advocacy Coalition, including partners like Upwardly Global, New American Cities, Washington Academy for IMGs, representatives from each of the Resettlement Agencies (Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington, Lutheran Social Services National Capital Area, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services), World Education Services (WES), Refugee Council USA, and Refugees International.

I will continue to search for others who can help close the gap between these doctors’ skills and their ability to practice medicine once again. Why? Because it is a win-win solution when the US is projecting a doctor shortage of 124,000 physicians within the next 12 years. Because it makes sense to mobilize foreign trained doctors to care for others who have also been displaced from their same country. And because one of these doctors may even help to save my own life.

Maybe even more importantly, I continue to work on their behalf because they have become my friends. A few months after interviewing these doctors, I spoke with each of them again individually to affirm how we are working to develop solutions for them. I got to see their big smiles and hear the overwhelming gratitude in their voices. They said phrases like “You have breathed new life into me”, and “Receiving your email was like getting the email of the year!” They are no longer invisible.

Do you have connections with the U.S. medical system in the Washington D.C. area and would like to learn more about how you can contribute to the DMV Refugee Physician's Advocacy Coalition's initiatives?

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