Engaging Immigrant Health Professionals

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As an immigrant, I was thrilled to receive the Champions of Change award last week. Along with the honor came the opportunity to join other honorees in a substantial conversation with several Administration officials, where we talked about successful immigrant integration strategies and the role the Administration can play in supporting these on-going, community based efforts.

My area of interest and expertise is the cultural and linguistic diversification of the U.S. health workforce as a means of reducing racial and ethnic disparities in health. To that end, I started ten years ago the Welcome Back Initiative, a program designed to identify, guide, and support immigrant health professionals in their quest for relicensure or recertification in the U.S. 

Since its inception, the Welcome Back Initiative has identified over 11,000 individuals from 151 countries who were trained in a health profession abroad. At the time we first met them, 66% of them were not working in the health sector at all; rather, they were working in restaurants, hotels, driving cabs, or doing other sorts of survival jobs. This is a terrible waste of brainpower from any point of view, especially in light of the passage last year of the Affordable Care Act. As our country prepares to offer health services to millions of people formerly uninsured, a critical piece of our success will be to ensure that we have the workforce necessary to deliver these services. Immigrant health professionals can and should be considered an invaluable community asset in our efforts to fulfill the promise of health reform.

But besides returning over 2,000 professionals so far to the health workforce, our work achieves a much larger outcome: immigrant integration. Just like we see the professional lives of our participants take off, we also see the lives of their families improve. With better employment, they can afford better housing, better schooling for their children, and an overall better standard of living. Their contribution to their localities’ tax base also increases, thus enhancing their communities’ potential. Moreover, they can – and do – become more engaged in the civic processes. When welcome them back to the field they know and love, we all win.

 As we strive to form a more perfect union, ensuring that all members of society – natural born as well as immigrants – have a chance to achieve their full potential should remain the guiding light of our work. My own life story proves to me that this is possible.

José Ramón Fernández-Peña is the founder and director of the Welcome Back Initiative (WBI).

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