Visa rules, red tape block NRI doctors in US from joining fight against COVID-19 outbreak

Non-Resident Indian (NRI) doctors in the USA are being forced by red tape and immigration regulations to remain on the sidelines of the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. 

While there is a desperate shortage of doctors in areas like New York City hospitals with the increasing number of COVID-19 patients threatening to crash the medical system, thousands of immigrant doctors, many of them NRIs, are legally barred from using their expertise to fight the outbreak.

A makeshift hospital being set up in New York City to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy: Twitter/@DeptofDefense

Dr Shantanu Singh, an NRI and a Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine Physician in Huntington, West Virginia, is in the US on an 'exchange visitor' J1 visa, which leaves him unable to do paid work or even volunteer for any hospital other than the one that sponsored his visa. 

Despite multiple calls for volunteers to help check the COVID-19 pandemic, it is illegal for Singh to travel to places that desperately need his help and expertise. 

He noted that immigrant physicians cannot even participate in direct patient care or telemedicine in locations not specified in the visa.

“This takes thousands of physicians out of the pool that can buttress the loss of doctors from exposure, infection and illness while fighting the pandemic,” he said.  

“I'm also worried about my visa paperwork at the same time…because I need to have some visa paperwork taken care of before the end of June,” Dr Singh said.  

Even now, foreign-born health care professionals represent more than their share of the overall US population; 14.7% of nurses and 22.7% of health aides are immigrants, compared to 13.7% of the population as a whole, per a National Academy of Medicine study.

During a White House press briefing last week, US President Donald Trump did not respond to a reporter's question on waiving visa restriction for immigrant doctors. 

Organisations such as the Society of Hospital Medicine (SHM) and American Medical Association (AMA) have been urging the US government to take steps to expand the physician workforce to meet the increasing demands on the American health system during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The SHM wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and others on Capitol Hill,  asking them to give the 10,000 immigrant doctors who have trained in the US and are now caught in the green card backlog permanent resident status.

"Immigrant physicians are crucial in providing quality care throughout the United States. However, visa restrictions are limiting the ability to effectively utilise and deploy these physicians in communities with the greatest need," the SHM wrote.

The group also requested that clinicians on H-1B visas be granted permission to work in hospitals that have not sponsored their visas and an automatic extension of their visas.

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