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Foreign doctors fill nurse shortage gap

California is suffering from an acute shortage of registered nurses. There's an especially high demand for nurses who are bilingual. A unique program at Grossmont College is trying to fill some of that need, by tapping into an unusual source: foreign-trained doctors. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

At a Mexican restaurant in San Diego, members of the first accelerated nursing class of the Welcome Back program have a reunion.

As they sip margaritas, these new nurses swap stories and share a few laughs.
These men and women have a lot in common. They're all from foreign countries. And they all used to be doctors in their native lands.

Juan Bartolome was a liver transplant surgeon in Spain. But when he emigrated to the U.S., Bartolome's medical degree suddenly wasn't worth much. Before he could practice here, Bartolome would have had to pass a difficult series of exams and spend four years as a medical resident.

Then, Bartolome heard about the Welcome Back program. He wanted to stay involved in medicine, but wasn't sure about becoming a nurse.

Bartolome: "But later thinking about that, I thought that well, that could open many doors to me. And so when it finally happened, that was the key for the door."

Through the Welcome Back program, Bartolome completed his course work, passed his boards, and got a nursing license all in less than two years.

Program director Bob Yarris says Welcome Back helps address a big problem in San Diego.

Bob Yarris: "We live in a very multi-cultural city, a significant number of patients in our hospitals today are Latinos, a small percentage of our workforce are Hispanic or Latino. And so we have a disconnection in communication, we have a disconnection in understanding the culture, and we clearly, we can help fill that void."

Most immigrants who were trained in medicine in other countries don't have healthcare jobs in the U.S. The idea behind Welcome Back is to help these people get the training and licenses they need so they can put their skills to work here.

Welcome Back is not a headhunting agency, and it doesn't recruit people from overseas. All of its students are already here legally. They find out about the program through word of mouth.

Since the program's inception, more than 15-hundred immigrants have taken medical courses offered through Grossmont College.

Vicki McCalmont: "So what is coronary artery disease, we're gonna start right off the top. We start with atherosclerosis."

Tonight's class is Nursing 230, a core course in the 3rd semester of Welcome Back's accelerated program.

One of the students is Adela Caudillo. She graduated from medical school in Mexico, and practiced in Tijuana.
Caudillo says she just couldn't stomach putting years into trying to get licensed as a doctor here.
Adela Caudillo: "On the other hand, nursing, especially nursing as it is practiced in the U.S., is very appealing to me, especially the growth field that opens once you graduate, it's beautiful, I mean. And when we talk about salary, it's not just the only consideration, quality of life as well. And I see what nurses do in the U.S, I can go either in administration, patient care, teaching, so I'm very excited about the program."

Dr. Elisabeth Hamel helped design the Welcome Back curriculum. An immigrant herself, Hamel believes it makes sense to take advantage of talent no matter where it comes from. And she says Welcome Back students come to nursing with a wealth of knowledge which really helps when they get to the bedside.
Elisabeth Hamel: "Wouldn't we all like to be admitted to a hospital and have somebody take care of us who knows just a little bit more than the average bear? You know, I mean, who has had the background, who could pick up on subtleties that would take a long time to develop for the registered nurse."

Welcome Back is funded by the California Endowment, with a boost from some local hospitals. There are Welcome Back centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well.
Program director Bob Yarris says the long-term prospects for Welcome Back are unclear.
Yarris: "My vision, my dream, would have the chancellor's office in Sacramento one day make this a line item in the state's budget, to fund the Welcome Back centers. Now, you might say, well, how many nurses can we produce? Well, you know what? Theoretically, if we could get funding, we could have this curriculum in every community college in San Diego."

Most nursing programs in the state are full, with plenty of students on waiting lists.
In the meantime, demand for nurses remains high. There are currently more than six-thousand vacant nursing positions in California. Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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