By Ahmad Javed Momand
I remember the day I was leaving for work in Kabul and found a letter from the Taliban on my front gate: “We will kill you and your family.”
I was an anesthesiologist, treating war victims and helping the U.S. Army train Afghan medical personnel. As recommended by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, we relocated many times to keep safe. But the Taliban always found me. So in 2017, I immigrated to Virginia on a Special Immigrant Visa reserved for allies of the U.S. armed forces.
Today I’m on the front line of a different war — the fight against Covid-19. When I arrived in the U.S., I hoped to continue my work as a physician. But with a family to provide for, I couldn’t afford to jump into the long, expensive process to repeat my education. Instead, I took a 10-week course to become a medical assistant and phlebotomist. Currently, I’m processing dozens of coronavirus tests daily. In my second job at another health care facility, I take employee temperatures before they enter the workplace.
I like the work I do. But, as important as coronavirus testing and screenings are, I could be doing more as a physician. I’ve seen patients struggling to breathe and no doctors available to help. Some states have been forced to split ventilators, but you can’t split doctors and nurses. Having ample equipment means nothing without having enough trained personnel to administer the care. I’m trained to do intubations and operate ventilators, but I’m not currently allowed to apply this training in the U.S.
I worked hard to become a doctor in Afghanistan, completing seven years of medical school and a three-year residency. I practiced medicine for five years before coming to the U.S. Unfortunately, the U.S. requires almost all internationally-trained physicians to re-take medical exams and re-do their residency, no matter how many years of experience we have abroad. I understand the need to vet our credentials before we’re allowed to practice in the U.S, but this unnecessarily burdensome re-licensing process prevents many talented doctors from fully contributing at a moment when we are sorely needed.
America was facing a significant physician shortage even before coronavirus hit. In 2018, there were 27 open health care practitioner jobs — for doctors, surgeons, registered nurses — for every one unemployed worker, according to New American Economy. In Virginia, the shortage was even more acute: 33 open health care jobs and 13.8 open practitioner jobs for every one unemployed worker. The 2.8 million immigrant health care professionals already working in this country, including 57,234 in Virginia, are helping fill those gaps. But we could be doing more. And the country needs us; by 2023, we’ll be short nearly 122,000 physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Many internationally-trained medical professionals are eager to practice here, even in the middle of a pandemic. In March, the nonprofit Upwardly Global surveyed 325 immigrant and refugee job seekers with health care backgrounds. Like me, many served on the front line of past pandemics — Ebola, SARS, Swine Flu — in our home countries. A full 95 percent of us said we’d be willing to serve on the COVID-19 front line if given the opportunity.
Each year, Upwardly Global coaches hundreds of immigrants and refugees back into their professional careers. But there’s no efficient way to get these doctors and nurses to work. Currently, I’m preparing for step one of the three-step U.S. Medical Licensing Exam. A lot of it is basic science, something I studied a decade ago and is irrelevant in my work now as an anesthesiologist. After passing all three steps of the exam, I’ll have to complete a four-year anesthesiology residency. Rather than making every internationally-trained doctor start our training almost from scratch, our individual credentials and professional experience should first be considered.
America needs a more streamlined system to get internationally-trained doctors to work. In countries like Canada, internationally-trained physicians participate in a 12-week clinical field assessment and complete an apprenticeship before returning to service. Meanwhile, to fight Covid-19, several U.S. states have adopted emergency licensing guidelines to allow more immigrant health care workers to contribute their skills. Virginia even set up a workgroup to study licensing issues. These are great blueprints for building more permanent licensing solutions.
The anesthesiologists at my hospital are performing the exact job I did in Afghanistan, using the same medicine and equipment. Qualified health care professionals like me shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines simply because we were born elsewhere.
Our lives depend on it.
Ahmad Javed Momand is a lab assistant in Manassas.