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Immigrant Doctors In San Diego Find Path Back To Practicing Medicine

The Welcome Back Center at Grossmont Community College is working with 1,400 foreign-trained physicians, including 54 refugees, to get a U.S. medical license and resume the career they gave up when they immigrated here.

Hundreds of foreign-trained doctors in San Diego are finding a path back to practicing medicine thanks to a program that’s helping them clear major obstacles to get a U.S. medical license.

Photo credit: Welcome Back Center/Grossmont Community College

Students at the Welcome Back Center at Grossmont Community College.

The free program is one of nine in the U.S. designed to help immigrants who are legally able to work but left jobs as doctors or nurses in their home countries only to end up with low-paying jobs in the U.S.

Immigrant health professionals face many obstacles in obtaining a U.S. license because the process is confusing, costly and takes years to complete, said Gail Patterson, project manager at Grossmont Community College's Welcome Back Center.

"They face very high standards in order to pass the state boards," said Patterson. "There’s applications, there’s agencies that they have to work through, there’s examinations, and, of course, they’re studying in a language that’s a second language for them," said Patterson.

Patterson said the center walks the medical professionals through each step and helps them learn English on the side. But even if they pass state board exams with high scores, the cards are stacked against them.

The biggest challenge is receiving a spot in America’s medical residency system.

"Ninety-eight percent of doctors who graduate from the United States secure residency, but only 40 percent of the doctors that are foreign trained will secure residency," explained Patterson.

Still, she said the program will help fill the anticipated shortage of primary care physicians as the federal health law takes effect in January.

She said it will also increase the diversity in the health care workforce in San Diego's medically underserved areas because many immigrants who successfully receive their license and residency return to their neighborhood clinics as primary care physicians.

Since 2001, the Center has assisted more than 3,600 internationally-trained doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals from 94 countries.

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