(BPT) - When it comes to accessing healthcare, patients living in rural communities across America face a unique and complex set of challenges. While remote areas often have harsh weather conditions and limited transportation to medical centers, another problem poses a constant threat to patients in these already underserved communities: a shortage of practicing physicians.
The National Rural Health Association found that 77% of rural counties are struggling with a lack of primary care, dental care or mental health providers. The doctor shortage nationwide is predicted to increase by 2030, according to a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, which presents a worrisome trend for the rising population of U.S. adults ages 65 and older — also estimated to grow by 50% before 2030 — as their need for care increases with age.
As rural communities explore ways to bridge this critical gap in resources, international medical graduates (IMGs) remain indispensable to many U.S. health systems. These practitioners are more likely than their American counterparts to practice medicine in rural communities, according to the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG), making a meaningful difference in areas where their services are needed the most. Nationwide, there are more than 260,000 IMGs, comprising one-quarter of our entire physician workforce.
“International medical graduates are invaluable contributors to the United States healthcare system,” explained William Pinsky, M.D., president and CEO of ECFMG. “It’s often difficult to recruit physicians to work in rural areas. International medical graduates are more willing to work in these communities.” Founded more than six decades ago, ECFMG is the sole agency in the country responsible for certifying physicians who have gone to medical school outside of the United States and Canada.
Improving access to care in rural communities is a tall order, and the IMGs who serve these communities are innovating to meet this challenge. The emergence of telehealth is already presenting opportunities to shift the landscape and make a difference — from small, isolated towns to Native American reservations. Healthcare professionals in these parts of the country may not have the same tools and supplies as doctors in urban areas, but virtual access to larger health systems is providing patients and physicians with unprecedented access to counsel, support, tests and treatment plans from hospitals with more resources.
As an IMG from India, Archana Chatterjee, M.D., Ph.D., practices pediatric medicine at the Sanford Children’s Specialty Clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She is one of only three pediatric infectious disease specialists in the entire state. The other two specialists are also IMGs.
“IMGs today are working to ensure that people living in underserved communities are able to receive quality care. With today’s technology, it is possible to bring the latest innovations to some of the farthest areas facing the greatest unmet needs,” she said.
Chatterjee noted that hospitals are also beginning to expand their offerings to medical students with the goal of increasing the number of primary care physicians practicing in rural areas. The University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, for example, created the Frontier and Rural Medicine (FARM) program to give medical students new rotation opportunities in rural communities, to learn clinical medicine and to observe firsthand the obstacles that healthcare providers and patients face in these regions.
“IMGs are working to dispel this notion that geography and healthcare are mutually exclusive and to empower patients everywhere through better quality care,” said Chatterjee. “For us, the opportunity right now is too great to ignore.”