Ramu Kharel is an emergency medicine attending physician at Miriam Hospital in Providence and a global emergency fellow at Brown University.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Rhode Island experienced its deadliest day of the pandemic since June. At Miriam Hospital, where I’m an emergency medicine doctor, I was witnessing these numbers firsthand. During this second wave, my colleagues and I spend long, jam-packed shifts running between patients.
And we’re not the only ones. Health-care providers around the country are stretched thin. COVID is to blame, of course. But so are staff shortages. As hospital beds fill up, there aren’t enough doctors and nurses to go around.
That’s why President Trump’s persistent attempts to ban legal immigrants — including thousands of health-care workers — is so maddening. It’s unfair to the frontline workers like us, who are risking their lives to save lives. And it’s unfair to our patients, who deserve more from the world’s most advanced medical system. If President-elect Joe Biden is truly serious about combatting the pandemic, he must understand that health policy and immigration policy go hand-in-hand. America needs more health-care professionals and that means we must reopen our doors.
Our health-care worker shortage grows worse every day; by 2023, the nation will be short nearly 122,000 physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. We must make it easier for immigrant health-care workers to come here, and for foreign medical graduates who are already in this country to get residency spots.
Unfortunately, President Trump has made things worse. As COVID cases climbed, he made it substantially harder for many immigrant health-care professionals to secure guest worker visas, including medical residents already accepted at American medical schools. His 2020 travel ban restricted immigration from Nigeria, even though more than 1 in 3 Nigerians here works in health care, according to New American Economy. And he slashed the number of refugees who could resettle here, even though over 15 percent of that population works in health care.
We need more doctors and nurses, but our field also needs more diversity. Immigrants and minority groups are disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic. That requires medical professionals who understand unique cultural norms and speak different languages. In 2018, about 69 percent of immigrant health-care workers in America spoke at least one language in addition to English, according to NAE.
But medical interpreters are also in short supply. As a native of Nepal, I’ve been filming Nepali-language public health videos for my community in the U.S. and Nepal. Because if the virus spreads within any single community, it will inevitably spread beyond it.
In an unexpected twist, I’ve been using teaching strategies I developed five years ago to advance public health and primary health care in rural Nepal. Back then,…