Across America, foreign-born doctors are providing medical care in some of the country’s most underserved communities: small, rural counties that have only 82 doctors for every 100,000 residents, less than half the number available in urban areas. This is possible, in large part, because of the Conrad 30 Waiver program, which was established in 1994 and waives the requirement that foreign medical students on a J-1 visa return to their home countries for two years after graduation. Under the program, each state’s health department can annually sponsor up to thirty international graduates from U.S. medical schools to stay and work in that state’s most medically underserved areas.
The Conrad 30 Waiver program has allowed immigrant doctors to make vitally important contributions across the country in the past two decades, but its future is now in jeopardy. Although Congress temporarily extended the program in late September, the new reauthorization deadline, December 11, is this week.
In 2013, I received a Conrad 30 Waiver to remain in West Virginia, following my interventional cardiology fellowship at the Boston University Medical Center. Over the decade that I have lived and worked here, I have become increasingly attached to this wonderful state—which, despite all of its positive attributes, remains one of America’s poorest and most rural states. West Virginia also suffers from one of the highest incidences of heart attacks in the country.
Through my work at Wheeling Hospital—the only facility in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle that offers interventional cardiology procedures—I have been able to have a tangible impact on my community. For example, I was one of the first people to use a drug coated balloon angioplasty for peripheral interventions in the Ohio Valley. Before this technology was used, surgical outcomes were much less positive—it was not uncommon for patients to lose their legs without proper intervention. Today, surgeries tend to have incredibly positive outcomes. For example, the first patient I operated on had suffered from a blocked artery in his thigh for more than five years; he’s running now.
My story is not unique: there are thousands of other foreign-born doctors that, thanks to the Conrad 30 program, have been able to make critical contributions to America’s rural counties. These populations already face severe doctor shortages, especially when compared to the country’s urban areas, and this disparity will only worsen, as 20 percent of physicians in rural communities are expected to retire over the next five years. These trends mean it will become increasingly difficult for rural communities to adequately address their growing healthcare needs.
If Congress fails to recognize the role the Conrad 30 Waiver program has played in helping rural areas fill gaps in their medical workforce, our nation’s elected leaders will be doing a great disservice to America’s neediest counties. Congress should move swiftly to reauthorize and expand this program; my experience has shown that it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Hooda is an interventional cardiologist at the Reynolds Memorial and Wheeling hospitals in Wheeling, West Virginia. He was recently designated as being amongst the top 5 percent of doctors within his field (based on quality measures) in the United States.