Healthcare’s foreign invasion

Obama risked a trade war with China about manufacturing -- so why isn't he outraged about medical jobs?

Topics: Healthcare Reform, Unemployment, ,

Healthcare's foreign invasion (Credit: gualtiero boffi via Shutterstock/Salon)
This article was adapted from the new book, "Insourced", available May 8 from Dartmouth College Press.

Approximately 15 percent of all healthcare workers and 25 percent of all physicians in the United States were born and educated elsewhere. This means that 1.5 million healthcare jobs are “insourced,” occupied by foreign-born, foreign-trained workers brought into the United States on special visas earmarked for healthcare jobs. This number is 50 percent greater than the total number of jobs in the U.S. auto-manufacturing industry. It’s amazing to consider that in 2008 and 2009, the auto industry, which makes up just 3.6 percent of the U.S. economy, received a $97 billion bailout. If we estimate that each of these 1.5 million insourced healthcare jobs has an average wage of $60,000, that’s $90 billion a year in wages going to people brought into the United States to work rather than training Americans to do the same jobs.

The healthcare industry makes up 16 percent of our economy. Yet even in these days of close to 10 percent unemployment, we do not invest enough money in our young people to train them for jobs in healthcare — an already understaffed industry that will have to serve an additional 32 million people once the provisions of the 2010 health-reform law take full effect. Instead, when faced with pressure from hospitals and nursing homes for more healthcare workers, the federal government grants visas to import nurses, physicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, and many other types of healthcare workers from countries that can ill afford to lose them.

In some U.S. industries, the outcome of globalization is positive or neutral. Take the sugar industry. Due to lower labor and land costs and better weather conditions, it’s far cheaper to grow sugar cane in the Caribbean than sugar beets in North Dakota. As import taxes fall, global transportation improves, and the number of sugar beet farms in the United States declines, more Americans are sweetening their cereal with sugar from Jamaican sugar cane. Americans save money buying cheaper sugar; the economy of the poorer sugar-growing countries improves, lifting thousands of people out of poverty; and the few displaced American sugar beet farmers generally find other work. But sugar is not a strategic commodity. If CARICOM, the Caribbean Community, were to halt sugar exports to the United States, we would experience no crisis. Sugar is not essential to our diet or life, and we have plenty of substitutes, from honey and corn syrup to NutraSweet. If necessary, within a year we could again be producing sugar in the United States.

The U.S. healthcare industry is 200 times larger than the U.S. tire-manufacturing industry, yet President Obama risked a trade war with China, our biggest trade partner, over tires. He was understandably trying to protect well-paying manufacturing jobs for American workers. Yet each year, we bring thousands of nurses from China to work in even better-paying jobs rather than train young people in this country to become nurses. The irony is that the economic costs of “insourcing” healthcare workers, including the loss of jobs no longer available to Americans, are far greater than the costs when we import Chinese tires. In 2003 the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS), a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that administers the U.S. nursing licensing exam for foreign-trained nurses, opened a testing center in Beijing. The opening of this center initiated a “mushrooming” of new nursing schools in China and led to credible predictions that China will soon surpass the Philippines as the number one source of foreign-trained nurses imported to the United States.

Given the publicity and furor over the loss of manufacturing jobs, the lack of protest over healthcare-worker insourcing is surprising. Congress passed legislation and President George W. Bush signed a law in 2007 to protect the American sock industry from the rival Honduran sock industry. Yes, that’s right: socks. Protecting a few hundred $15-an-hour sock-manufacturing jobs based solely in the small town of Fort Payne, Ala., was worth acting on. Yet insourcing hundreds of thousands of $60-an-hour healthcare jobs has prompted no such similarly high-level response from our leaders.

Instead, on a regular basis, Congress approves and presidents from both political parties sign legislation to enable the legal entry of an ever-increasing number of foreign healthcare workers. Each year, about 20,000 new healthcare-specific visas are issued for these workers.

The United States has traditionally not allowed strategic industries to be outsourced. That’s why the U.S. steel industry and the U.S. car industry have received bailout after bailout. Access to enough steel and automobiles is essential to our economy; without a sufficient supply of each, our economy would be severely damaged. It’s time we acknowledged that the health of the population is just as important as steel and autos in keeping our economy strong. Healthcare is too important to risk continuing to insource it.

It’s not just a matter of protecting and expanding jobs for American workers. Every year, thousands of Americans die, and the health of thousands more is compromised, because of the shortage of healthcare workers in every one of the healthcare professions.

On the surface, insourcing may appear to be a harmless or even win-win solution to the country’s healthcare-worker shortage. The hospital receives a much-needed worker, and the worker escapes life in a struggling country for a better life here. But we should be training more people in this country to work in those professions, especially people from poor and minority communities. Rather than investing in our own people and communities, however, the U.S. government has decided to take the best and brightest workers from struggling countries.

Many foreign-trained healthcare workers, no matter how smart, are not adequately prepared for practice in the fast-paced, high-tech world of U.S. medicine. Whether in operating rooms, hospital wards, or nursing homes, inadequately qualified and poorly oriented foreign healthcare workers endanger the lives of their patients, as well as the lives and careers of their American-trained colleagues.

But the main reason for this country’s rise in unnecessary deaths and delayed care is understaffing — a result of the failure to train and place enough healthcare workers, especially in rural and underserved communities. Americans who live in rural areas make fewer visits to healthcare providers and are less likely to receive preventive care. The infant-mortality rate for African-Americans is twice that for the average American; Latinos are twice as likely as white Americans to die from diabetes. These health disparities are due in large part to a lack of healthcare workers, especially primary-care workers, in their communities. The quick fix has been importing foreign healthcare workers for these unfilled positions. Unfortunately, once these workers fulfill their initial contracts, most move to communities without healthcare-worker shortages; in fact, foreign-trained healthcare workers are more likely to practice in the well-served, major metropolitan areas than their American-trained counterparts.

Even if good foreign-trained healthcare workers were here in numbers adequate to meet our needs, the U.S. healthcare system is about encounter a tidal wave of demand as 78 million baby boomers approach their 60s. Older people make, on average, six visits to a healthcare provider a year, compared with two visits per year for people under 60. The healthcare workforce is aging, too: More than 50 percent of practicing healthcare workers are eligible to retire during the next 10 years, which will leave us with fewer workers to treat more and sicker patients.

In the eyes of employers, of course, insourcing healthcare workers appears to offer many benefits. Most doctors and nurses in developing countries earn a fraction of what American doctors and nurses earn: A Caribbean nurse makes around $1,000 a month; an Ethiopian physician, about $100 a month. Not only are many foreign-trained healthcare workers accustomed to lower salaries and quality of life, but they also carry little or no education debt, while their American-trained colleagues typically graduate with five- and six-figure debt burdens. With average student debt burdens of $155,00011 for newly graduated physicians and $30,375 for nurses, American-trained health workers require a higher salary just to help pay for their education. Trained in a much more hierarchical environment, foreign workers are much less likely to unionize, or even express dissatisfaction with their work. As the percentage of imported healthcare workers increases, their attitudes toward salary and terms of employment undermine the bargaining power of U.S. workers, and even affect the important feedback loop between employees and management.

Polls indicate that 70 to 80 percent of Americans want to reduce the rate of immigration into the United States. Yet the American public is not aware of our policy of using healthcare-worker-specific visas to solve the healthcare-worker shortage.

Some legislators who publicly support stabilizing immigration consistently vote to increase the number of healthcare-worker-specific visas granted each year. It’s not that American citizens don’t want to become healthcare workers and fill these jobs. This distinction is critical, because every industry that has brought in foreign workers has argued that American workers won’t do the work for the prevailing wage, or won’t do the work no matter how high the pay is. In the healthcare industry, this argument does not apply. U.S. citizens want the jobs. They just can’t access the training. The United States does not have enough positions in health-professional schools to meet industry demands.

The tens of thousands of qualified nursing school and medical school applicants who are denied entry to school each year permanently lose out on their chosen careers, work that is consistently ranked in the top tier of salaries, with excellent benefits and almost guaranteed job security. This loss of career opportunity is even greater for rural and minority young people, who are grossly underrepresented in the higher-level health professions, such as physicians and nurses, and overrepresented in the lower-level professions, such as technicians and home health assistants. Something is wrong when so many young Americans are forced to pursue other, lower-paying careers at a time when we desperately need more healthcare providers. In exchange we get foreign healthcare workers who are less well trained (they consistently score lower on licensing exams than U.S.-trained healthcare workers) and far less culturally competent than native-born Americans.

The most tragic and most preventable effect of our hiring so many healthcare workers from other countries is the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that each year more than 10 million people die needlessly, from easily treatable maladies such as diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, tuberculosis, vaccine-preventable diseases, and complications of childbirth. The WHO Global Health Workforce Alliance estimates that there are a billion people alive today who will never see a health worker in their lives. In Ethiopia, one in 10 Ethiopian children will die before his or her fifth birthday — yet there are more Ethiopian physicians in the Chicago area than in all of Ethiopia, which, with 80 million people, is the second most populous country in Africa. As their most skilled nurses emigrate to work in U.S. nursing homes, middle-income countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad have nurse-vacancy rates of 60 percent or higher.

Throughout the developing world, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, and many other types of healthcare workers are being approached and offered 10 times their salaries to practice in modern U.S. healthcare facilities with state-of-the-art technologies. Even the most dedicated, socially conscious worker would be tempted by such an offer. A colleague of mine relayed a conversation he’d had with the head of the Nursing Council of Kenya, who told him about the damage the exodus of senior nurses was doing to her country’s healthcare system. In the next breath, she confessed that the next time he visited Kenya, she might not be there. She was thinking about emigrating herself.

Our unofficial policy of relying on the world’s poorest countries to pay for the training of workers whom we then entice and bring to this country is devastating healthcare systems around the world. The loss to a developing country when a single physician, representing what may be a significant portion of their total number of physicians, emigrates is far greater than our gain. Our failure to provide education for our own citizens and to better plan for healthcare staffing and distribution does not justify poaching nurses and physicians from the countries that can least afford to lose them. How many additional deaths, how much more needless disability and suffering, will we allow this misguided policy to cause?

And consider American competitiveness. Certain industries are vital to U.S. global leadership. Recognizing their importance, we protect those industries. We don’t allow them to move overseas and make the United States vulnerable to the actions of other countries. Poor farmers in the developing world can certainly grow food staples more cheaply than American farmers do. But because of the strategic importance of the U.S. food supply, we subsidize some basic food crops, such as corn and soybeans.

And yet we are overreliant on foreign healthcare workers to meet our most basic health needs. This is particularly dangerous because many countries, almost completely drained of healthcare workers and tired of subsidizing the U.S. healthcare system, are trying to slam the door shut for emigrating healthcare workers. Meantime, of the world’s wealthiest nations, the United States has the worst health outcomes, with lower life expectancies and higher rates of deaths from preventable causes. In infant mortality, for instance, we rank 27th, behind Poland and Hungary. Our disability levels are higher than in most former Soviet countries.

If the United States is to remain competitive in the global economy, we need a healthy workforce. In order to achieve that, we need a healthcare workforce made up of adequate numbers of properly trained physicians, nurses, pharmacists, community-health workers, and other healthcare providers.

Dr. Kate Tulenko is a physician with degrees from Harvard University, Cambridge University and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The former coordinator of the World Bank's Africa Health Workforce Program, she currently serves as director of clinical services for a global health nonprofit.

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