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It's time to stop the foreign doctor kabuki

Residency application season has just started. Many of the applicants, a few of whom I know in person, will be foreign medical graduates, or FMGs, meaning that they are doctors who want to work in the US but are not US citizens. Most FMGs, but not all, will also be international medical graduates — IMGs — meaning that they have graduated from a non-US medical schools. Something called the Education Commision for Foreign Medical Graduates, or ECFMG, acts as their medical school when interacting with most of the sprawling US bureaucracy. These are our personae dramatis, if you will.

Disclosure: I am both an FMG and an IMG, and first began working in the US on an ECFMG-sponsored J1 visa.

America is a net importer of physicians, that much should obvious to anyone who’s ever been in an American hospital. The country depends on FMGs to keep the system running, get the less lucrative specialties, work in underserved areas, etc. Not so obvious is that most FMGs get to America by lying; ICE-approved, foreign-government sponsored lying for sure, but lying nonetheless.

Here are the lies FMGs tell when they come in: that their country has a need for doctors of such-and-such specialty, and/or that their government is sending them to the US for training in the said specialty, and/or that at the end of training they will go back to their country of origin to work in the (sub)specialty they came in to obtain. Those are the three postulates of the J1 physician exchange visa, the very name of which is also a lie as there is no exchange taking place: foreign doctors do come in, but no American doctors come out.

The postulates are incompatible with reality, and imply foreign government competence that just isn’t there in second and third-world countries. The transitioning and developing world, if you will. Because over there, no one is keeping statistics on specialist needs, and if they are there is actually a surplus, and if there isn’t they wouldn’t be able to afford the (sub)specialists once they come back, and if they could then they would be chosen by party or family lines, and you wouldn’t want them in your hospitals anyway.

So to get a J1 visa FMGs need to obtain a letter from their Ministry of Health or equivalent stating the above (the postulates, not the actual truth; I’m sure that in some of those countries people have gone to prison for saying the truth). But is there a functioning Ministry of Health? Does anyone there know that the letter they are supposed to provide about lending a medical graduate and wanting them back is a piece of kabuki theater, and not a commitment to employ that person if and when they come back? And because this letter is supposed to come in a sealed envelope directly from the Ministry to ECFMG: does anyone there speak English? So here are all those FMGs whose main reason to emigrate to America may have been to escape their kleptocratic governments, being dragged into a game of Whom do I bribe next? and Which newspaper do I threaten them with? In 2019 the correct answer is, for most countries of this sort, None. by the rules of the country they were hoping was less crooked than their own.

Which is fine for America, because it doesn’t care as long as it gets its steady stream of MDs one way or another. Only it should care because 1) the amount of person-hours wasted is on par with if not greater than the amount spent writing grants, and that one’s a whopper, 2) it relinquishes control over a part of its healthcare to foreign governments, and 3) it introduces an air of subterfuge and deceit at the very beginning of the FMG-USA relationship. I would like to think this is an aberration to be fixed, and not a preview of things to come in other areas of governance.

The process was probably fine 50 years ago, when both demands of the medical system and the influx of foreign doctors were but a fraction of the current monstrosity, when USMLE was taken on paper if you had to take it at all, when it wasn’t so obvious to a non-aligned physician whether they should go to the US or USSR (or Yugoslavia, for that matter) to get more training. But healthcare has changed and so has the world: it’s time do drop the pretense of an exchange, America, and be honest about what’s going on here.

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