This is the second of two posts prompted by Dr. Robert Centor’s critique of a recent New York Times Magazine article accusing America of “stealing [sic] the world’s doctors.” In the first post, I show how US immigration policy for physicians is a boondoggle of near-comedic proportions that doesn’t even constitute an effort at “theft,” given that it’s hard-pressed to hold onto me after I graduate (as I explain, I should be one of the easier doctors to “steal”).
Now let’s look at the counterfactual situation. Suppose the it were actually easy and straightforward for physicians to immigrate to the US (or to remain, in my case), gain licensure, and be certified in their specialties. Suppose the immigration and licensure systems were designed with this very goal in mind. Would this be a bad thing?
The conventional wisdom is that the emigration of skilled professionals from less to more-developed countries is bad for the less-developed countries: this process is often referred to as “brain drain.” Critics argue that “brain drain” harms poorer countries by preventing the development of local talent, skills, and professionals that are often sorely needed. They also point to the fact that many countries subsidize education at least to some extent, only to see the investment in their citizens’ human capital slip away beyond their shores.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. As the 19th century economist Frederic Bastiat pointed out, it is best “not to judge things solely by what is seen, but rather by what is not seen.“
What is “not seen” when it comes to emigration of skilled professionals? Networks of diaspora spread ideas and expertise, strengthen economic and social ties between countries, promote peace, and promote advances in the standards of living both at “home” and “abroad.” Emigrants usually earn much more in their new country, and their remittances home are not only better able to support their family and community, but are often enough (over a lifetime) to dwarf the amount their home government spent on their educations. The option of emigration to higher-income countries creates incentives for poor countries to invest in education, and for their citizens to take advantage of it. In short, emigration of skilled professionals to richer countries enhances their productivity, which in turn has positive effects for their home country, their adopted country, and all of us along the way.
Yet even this analysis misses the fundamental point. To insist, as the New York Times does, that foreign physicians somehow “belong” to their home countries is to objectify and commodify them. When you think about it, it’s a remarkable assumption for anyone to make. Foreigners are people too. We’re not chess pieces to be pushed around a board, traded for promises of foreign aid, trade preferences, or anything else one might imagine. The Canadian government has no more claim on me and my career than the American government does on anyone who has ever attended a public school in this country.
This is a universal principle. I don’t care how poor the country is, no government can claim to “own” its people in this way. It’s absurd to suggest that the United States government should alter its immigration policy to cater to other countries’ desire to engage in this form of subtle repression, and even more absurd to think that this would actually benefit anyone.
Physicians who voluntarily leave one country for another in the hopes of making a better life are not “being stolen.” Not unless you think they’re owned by someone other than themselves. At its core, that’s what this discussion is all about. And that’s why, in my mind, there should be no ambiguity as to the right conclusion.
In the process of catching up on Google Reader post-convention, I came across this recent post from Robert Centor criticizing a recent NY Times Magazine article alleging that ‘America is stealing [sic] the world’s doctors.’ As Dr. Centor rightly points out, this is utter nonsense, on multiple levels. In this post, I want to address the aspect of the “foreign doctor/brain drain” question that applies to students like me; in the next I talk about physician and other “brain drain” more generally.
As a student at an LCME-accredited American medical school, I don’t fall into the “international medical graduate” (IMG) category in quite the same way as those in the article. And despite the fact that I’m “only” Canadian, I’m still foreign enough to have to figure out where my next visa will come from for residency, fellowship, and beyond. This post will not be an extended disquisition on the finer points of American immigration law and visa classifications (subjects with which I am far too familiar). You will, however, get a taste of how dysfunctional the American approach to foreign physicians is, especially at a time marked by widespread predictions of an impending doctor shortage.
Most public medical schools in the US and many private schools will not even consider non-citizen/non-permanent resident (foreign) applicants. Those of us who do get an offer somewhere find that we are not eligible for US government financial aid, and for a great deal of school-based aid as well. Despite this, we still benefit indirectly from taxpayer subsidies. Tuition makes up a minuscule fraction of medical school revenue; according to SUMS‘s tax returns, our tuition barely covers the costs of the medical education and educational technology support staff. Nothing more. The rest comes from patient care revenues and various grants, much of which in turn comes from the taxpayer.
After receiving a medical education at great personal financial cost (debt), yet one that’s also heavily subsidized by the US taxpayer, the expectation is that we go home. Or at least leave the country. Completing post-graduate training in the US requires finding residency programs that are willing to sponsor one of the two main types of visas that can be used for this purpose: the J-1 comes with a 95% iron-clad requirement to leave the US and work in one’s home country for two years upon completion of training before one can come back to this country; the H-1B comes with a 100% iron-clad time limit of six years (for reference, here is a list of residency length by field, not including sub-specialty fellowships). Even assuming one could find and be accepted into a program that will sponsor either visa, neither seems particularly conducive to “theft” of foreign physicians.
Unlike in medical school, foreigners in US residencies and fellowships often do benefit from direct US taxpayer subsidy, as Medicare pays for most residency positions, including salary and benefits. So what happens to foreigners who receive direct government subsidies to train in their specialty?
Again, the expectation is that we will go home (in the case of the J-1 visa), or at least leave the country (in the case of the H-1B). The United States is one of the few, perhaps the only, developed country that requires all long-term immigrants to be sponsored by an employer or a family member. There is no “points” system for independent applicants; no way for someone like me to prove that I’m smart, talented, possess in-demand skills, and probably ought to be allowed to stay indefinitely (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars of subsidy I will have enjoyed by this point). More shockingly, there’s seemingly no desire on the part of the US government to hold on to the medical talent that it paid to develop.
What employer would sponsor a foreign physician? Moreover, what employer would sponsor any employee for permanent residence before at least a few years of full-time employment have passed? The H-1B comes with a six-year time limit; look at the length of various residencies at the link above. We’re short primary care physicians (3 years), yes, but we’ll be short general surgeons (5 years) and cardiologists (6 years) as well.
I, and those in my situation, are the lucky ones, comparatively. We don’t even have to jump through extra hoops for medical licensure and board certification the way “real” IMGs have to. It’s a wonder anyone manages this at all.
If the United States is “stealing” [sic] foreign physicians, it’s one of the most tragically/comically inept thieves I’ve heard of. Even in my “easy” case, after I will have spent 7+ years being educated at world-class American schools (11+ if you count college), the US is happy and indeed seemingly eager to see me go.
Some people would approach this conundrum entirely differently. They would argue that because foreigners in the American medical training process receive indirect and then direct government subsidies, the process should be closed to them in the first place. I understand the logic, but this strikes me as doubling-down on the foolishness of the current system. Getting into medical school and residency is frighteningly competitive. Being a foreigner only makes it harder. I make no claims as to myself, but one would therefore expect the marginal foreign applicant to be at least as good as the marginal American applicant… if not better. That some of them manage to stay in the US to practice medicine even in spite of the numerous hurdles along the way should suggest even more strongly that these are the people you want to hold on to.
What with this whole commencement of medical school, it’s been a while since the last edition. So I bring you slightly more than usual
Fun tidbits, health-related and otherwise, from around the ‘tubes:
- Worthwhile Canadian Initiative reminds us that counterintuitive though it may be, there is an optimal amount of forgetting. Dr. Bob Centor suggests that proposed performance payment for physicians forgets the role of patient preferences in steering therapy. Sticking with patient preferences, two posts at KevinMD argue that the long-term viability and feasibility of the PCMH care model should be determined by patient desires. That is, if the PCMH model is workable to begin with… an arguable proposition. Of course, if recent trends with retail clinics are any indicator… well, it could indicate many things. You be the judge.
- Beware economists bearing dynamic stochastic general equilibrium macroeconometric models! Beware surrogate endpoints in clinical research! Beware constitutional challenges to the PPACA! Beware Robin Hood… libertarian rebel? Beware overly alarmist bullet points!
- End-of-life spending has gotten some attention. The DMCB and Health Affairs alike aren’t convinced that reducing this spending will be easy, or that the savings are in fact possible to realize, at least as conventionally measure. Relatedly, a guest poster at KevinMD points out that in medicine, sometimes “more is more.” Not all potential cost-savings are “free lunches.”
- The Happy Hospitalist argues that data on physician reporting on impaired colleagues shows that the profession’s ethical standards are quite high. Dr. Wes points out the ethical shortcomings of conducting large-scale policy experiments without any concept of research subject welfare as found in clinical research. Arguably least ethical of this bullet point is Congressional exemption of the SEC from most FOIA requests.
- Pretty pictures! Congressional Republicans give us charts explaining new government agencies created by the PPACA and the criteria for obtaining small business health insurance tax relief under the act. The Denver Post posts some extraordinary colour photos from the Depression era. Of course, sometimes making use of pretty pictures (and text) will cause one to run afoul of the federal government, as with the ADA actions taken against universities piloting Kindle usage among their students.
- Let’s talk unintended consequences of government actions. Start by guessing which Senator takes exception to certain provisions of the PPACA? Hint: his name rhymes with “Hairy Reed.” Elsewhere, the recession has forced two entrepreneurs to decamp to Canada because of the arcana of the E-2 visa. What happened to new bond issues after the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill? Would “disaster” be hyperbolic? Becker and Posner ponder the effects of the administration’s pro-union attitude on business uncertainty and the recovery. Megan McArdle discusses the optimal level of regulatory enforcement, whereas another blogger discusses the “tyranny of big ideas” in the context of regulatory change and improving human welfare.
- On lighter notes, we have a farmer who reminds the world that old-school farming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and a brief history of Tibetan Buddhism that is markedly different from the sort of thing you’d probably expect.
- Rounding out this week’s edition… Medical schools, broadly speaking, do three things. They educate physicians, produce research, and care for patients. As someone just starting medical school, it’s nice to read things like this post from Dr. Centor arguing that the primary mission of medical schools should in fact be medical education.