APHA Executive Board member José Ramón Fernández-Peña talked about improving diversity in the health workforce last week on Capitol Hill. Photo by APHA

APHA Executive Board member José Ramón Fernández-Peña talked about improving diversity in the health workforce last week on Capitol Hill. Photo by APHA

Public health in the U.S. is facing a workforce crisis. We don’t have enough practicing professionals to care for our population — and the problem is expected to get worse as the overall population grows and ages substantially while a segment of health care professionals approaches retirement age. But we can help strengthen the workforce by tapping into an often overlooked resource, according to APHA Executive Board member José Ramón Fernández-Peña and other health experts convened by APHA for a briefing on Capitol Hill last week.

Speakers at the event supported H.R. 2709, or the Professional’s Access to Health Workforce Integration Act, which Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) introduced to Congress in June. APHA supports the legislation, which would award grants providing career support for skilled internationally educated health professionals.

Fernández-Peña spoke about the success of the Welcome Back Initiative, an international health professional assistance program he founded in 2001 to improve diversity in the health workforce, with accomplishments including:

  • nearly 4,000 of its participants who validated their medical credentials;
  • more than 2,000 of its participants who gained health jobs in the U.S. for the first time;
  • more than 2,300 of its participants who passed licensing exams; and
  • its participants increasing their annual income by an average of 255 percent from initial contact to completion of their goals.

“The Welcome Back model works really well with our population,” said Fernandez-Peña, denoting the initiative’s 12 locations across the country. “Especially for Latinos; while 15 percent of the U.S. population are Latinos, only 4 percent of doctors in the U.S. are Latinos, only 3 percent of dentists in the U.S. are Latinos and only 3 percent of pharmacists in the U.S. are Latinos. When you don’t have this kind of cultural connectedness between communities seeking health services and people who are providing them, you get into complicated issues that need not happen.”

Programs such as Welcome Back are especially critical considering U.S. population changes. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that by 2025, the U.S. will need 500,000 more nurses, 46,000 more mental and behavioral health workers, 15,000 more dentists, and by 2030 38,000 more pharmacists.

And we’re wasting a lot of available resources, Migrant Policy Institute Senior Policy Analyst Jeanne Batalova said. Among them, nearly 2 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. — nearly 25 percent of all skilled immigrants — are either unemployed or working in unskilled jobs.

“At a time when the U.S. economy experiences a greater demand for skilled professionals, we waste the skills of a significant number of people,” Batalova said. “There are a lot of foreign-educated medical professionals, who are already here with cultural and linguistic abilities and skills that are very necessary for our communities (with) racial and ethnic and language diversity. Yet these people experience significant barriers to practice.”

Fernández-Peña added: “Another important challenge is that employers don’t always see the opportunity this represents. We may not understand where you can fit in our structure, or maybe someone that has an accent or looks different.” The PATH Act would also help educate employers regarding the abilities and capacities of health professionals who have been educated outside of the U.S.

Note: H.R. 2709 was an original provision of the Health Equity and Accountability Act of 2014, which APHA supported.