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Syrian-born Cardiologist Practices Where American Doctors Are Most Needed

Altoona, Pennsylvania, has a lot to recommend it: a small-town feel, a beautiful rural landscape and friendly people. But there is one thing that Altoona is missing: doctors.

“There is a very high demand for doctors here,” says Dr. Ziad Khoury, a Syrian-born cardiologist who has lived in the area since 1999. “It’s not easy to recruit here.” The small city of 45,000 makes for a high quality of life, he says. But many Americans don’t want to live 90 miles away from the cosmopolitan hub of Pittsburgh.

Many immigrants, on the other hand, are happy to. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, nearly 20 percent of physicians practicing in the United States are foreign-born, and many fill a vital need in rural areas facing doctor shortages. In the past decade, nearly 10,000 foreign-born doctors have been directed to rural and underserved areas through a visa waiver program.

The system should create an incentive to make it easier for doctors to work in a rural areas.

Khoury was one of them. After completing his medical residency in Pittsburgh, Khoury practiced for two years in East Liberty, an underserved neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Now many of his colleagues are also practicing in the region as a condition of their visas. “Once they pass the two- or three-year mark, they realize how rich the community is,” he says.

The shortage of doctors in Altoona and other rural communities means that attempts to limit U.S. immigration, such as through travel bans, could have a devastating effect on American patients. “Medicine is highly needed in certain areas, while other areas are oversaturated. If you live in New York City, there are many doctors in every direction, but here there aren’t enough, so the system should create an incentive to make it easier for doctors to work in a rural areas,” says Khoury.

As a Syrian native, Khoury has seen the recent travel-ban attempts impact his family directly. He has been trying to bring his siblings to the United States for the past 14 years and the recent war has created a stronger sense of urgency, especially since his hometown is close to the fighting and shelling.

“It‘s heartbreaking. They need to get here as soon as possible,” Khoury says.

Khoury was recently thrilled to welcome his sister and her family to Altoona, though the first travel ban brought complications. The ban, which blocked It travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries, was implemented when the family was in Jordan for their U.S. visa interview and lifted when they were in the air en route back to Syria. (They did the interview in Lebanon two weeks later, by which time the ban had been blocked by a court order.)

“It was hard, especially with three kids, ages 3, 9, and 14, but when they finally arrived it was the best relief,” Khoury says.

Khoury would like to see a more streamlined immigration system that rewards people who wish to legally immigrate. He would prefer to see academics and business professionals attempt to develop thoughtful and systematic policies, rather than have politicians play to people’s emotions.

“Whenever we make it political, we lose,” he says. “That is why it should be reformed in a technocratic way rather than a political way.”

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