World Health Day: How Immigrants are Helping to Keep America Healthy

Today marks World Health Day, and for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) will use the day to focus on spreading awareness for a disease that affects approximately 350 million people worldwide: diabetes. WHO is using a superhero-esque ‘Stay Super, Beat Diabetes’ theme to educate the public about this noncommunicable disease, its consequences, and particularly its effects on low- and middle-income countries.

In the United States alone, 29.1 million people suffer from diabetes, and that number is growing. Even more worrying is the growing rate of children being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which was virtually unheard of just a few decades ago. With more people requiring care, especially the elderly in America, the United States faces a looming shortage of physicians and other healthcare practitioners, such as home health aides. But immigrants in the United States are stepping up to play a big role in alleviating these coming shortages and are already filling gaps in underserved areas.

Immigrant doctors can play a critical role in the shortage of physicians in America’s rural counties, a recent PNAE report finds. While there are 40 states that have a county with fewer than 10 physicians for every 100,000 residents—and 27 states that have at least one county with no doctors at all—doctors who went to foreign medical schools make up 17 percent of active physicians practicing in small, rural areas (and account for almost 25 percent of physicians working in urban counties). West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes (14 percent), has fewer than 100 doctors per 100,000 people in the average county. Coming in second with a 13-percent Type 2 diabetes rate is Tennessee, a state that has fewer than 60 doctors in small, rural counties on average. Doing more to encourage foreign-born doctors to work in these underserved areas could go a long way, especially as the average small, rural community is slated to lost almost one in five of its active physicians to retirement in the next five years. The projected demand for doctors, as well as personal care aides, home health aides, and nursing assistants is only increasing, but immigrants can help meet these growing needs.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 25.9 percent of Americans age 65 and older—or 11.8 million seniors, including those diagnosed and undiagnosed—have diabetes. As people age, their risk for Type 2 diabetes increases. It is no secret that America’s population is aging. Immigrants not only help alleviate problems associated with an aging population by typically being of working age, but also complement the U.S.-born workforce in key areas directly treating and caring for aging Americans. By 2020, more than 1.3 million additional direct care workers will be needed, and immigrants are almost twice as likely as to work as physicians and surgeons.

Immigrants also impact the health of the nation in ways that may not be as obvious. A PNAE report finds that immigrants are providing significant contributions to Medicare, the publicly funded health insurance program that provides care to over 50 million American seniors and disabled individuals. Specifically, between 1996 and 2011, immigrants contributed nearly $200 billion more to the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund than was expended on their benefits. During this period, the U.S.-born population generated a deficit of $68.7 billion.

This World Health Day, WHO will be advocating for “stronger health systems to ensure improved surveillance, enhanced prevention, and more effective management of diabetes.” From alleviating the shortage of physicians in America’s rural counties to contributing to Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, immigrants are a driving force behind America’s healthcare industry.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…