I’m an experienced doctor. Let me practice medicine and provide care for those who need it.

Illinois and the U.S. should remove barriers that make it hard for foreign-trained doctors to practice medicine here.

SHARE I’m an experienced doctor. Let me practice medicine and provide care for those who need it.
Rush University Medical Center staff see patients in the Brennan Pavilion, the hospital’s main lobby, which was transformed into a low-acuity treatment area during COVID, November 2020.

Some 263,000 immigrants and refugees with degrees in health fields are currently underemployed. Foreign-trained health care workers could help ease the shortage of workers in the field.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It’s not easy being a refugee — in any country. When I was a child, my family fled war in our native Iraq and resettled in Syria. There were a lot of obstacles, but I attended school and studied medicine at Aleppo University. I did my residency and became a dermatologist.

In 2012, the escalating war in Syria forced my family back to Iraq. I worked under dangerous circumstances, with bombs flying over the medical centers in both Baghdad and Homs, where I used to live. Threats were made against physicians. People were kidnapped. Looking back, I can’t believe that I worked under those conditions.

In 2014, my family received the phone call that we had been anticipating for five years. We were approved to be resettled as refugees. Despite the dangers in Iraq, it was a difficult decision to leave everything we knew. But the opportunity to live in peace outweighed the struggle we knew we’d face as newcomers.

We had two weeks to pack our bags, say our goodbyes and board the plane to a new life in Chicago. I was hopeful but realistic about the challenges ahead. I knew it would take time to reestablish my medical practice, but I assumed it would happen eventually.

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Eight years later, I’m a U.S. citizen. But the barriers I face to practicing medicine here feel insurmountable.

This is devastating. I undertook a rigorous course of study in Syria and then practiced dermatology in two different countries. Yet here in the U.S., I have to repeat all those years of my life if I want to be a doctor again. I have spent thousands of dollars to take four required medical exams. I passed with flying colors.

But the exams were only the start. I also needed to repeat my residency. But you can’t even apply to a residency without completing a series of internships, which cost the intern around $6,000 total to do.

As a refugee, it’s not easy to find that kind of money, and my chance of residency acceptance is slim. According to the Harvard Business Review, only half of the graduates of international medical programs applying for American residency programs secure a spot. I have been applying for residency programs for three years now, hoping for a match.

Last year, I paid $5,000 in application fees. I am saving as much as I can from my current job as a home care aide. I also work a second job as a medical transcriptionist, making $15 an hour, because I have to support my parents, who are 83 and 74.

None of this makes sense. America has a severe shortage of health care workers, a situation exacerbated by our aging population and the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Immigration Council, health care job postings in Illinois’ large metro counties increased almost 60% between 2017 and 2021. The increase was even larger in smaller regions; postings were up 245% in small/medium metro counties and 105% in rural counties.

Yet the Migration Policy Institute estimates that some 263,000 immigrants and refugees with degrees in health fields are currently underemployed. Research also indicates that foreign-trained doctors are more likely to serve in low-income areas, where residents typically have less access to health care services.

In January, I saw a glimmer of hope. In response to COVID-induced shortages, Gov. J.B. Pritzker temporarily allowed foreign-trained doctors who hadn’t completed an American residency to care for patients under the supervision of a licensed physician. But the program wasn’t well-publicized. When I tried applying to jobs under the emergency order, clinics and practices said they hadn’t heard of it.

I have friends resettled in Sweden and Germany who already practice medicine. In those countries, if you already have a medical degree and experience, you can work clinically after passing an exam. For me, it’s hard not to despair. How will I survive working low-paid jobs for the rest of my life?

The temporary policy tested in Illinois showed that regulatory change can work. Our state Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, and her Healthcare Working Group created a task force to help reduce barriers faced by doctors like me. But we don’t just need a task force; we need action.

Why not make the emergency order permanent? I want the underserved people of Illinois to have health care. I want immigrants, who have so much to offer, to be able to make real contributions. Let international doctors work. Everyone stands to gain.

Sura Alsaffar is a dermatologist from Iraq. She resettled in Chicago with her family in 2014. 

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