International medical graduates are crucial in our battle against COVID-19

This past year, I served as an internal medicine resident at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, New York. And this month, I officially started my anesthesiology residency at Brown.

Working as a doctor amid the coronavirus pandemic has been surreal and challenging — particularly in what was once the epicenter of the outbreak. This public health crisis has proven that our country needs as many doctors as possible. Even before the pandemic, the United States faced an extreme shortage of physicians, and that’s only set to grow.

The coronavirus has also illustrated just how reliant the United States is on physicians educated at international medical schools. I should know — I’m one of them.

International medical graduates like me account for a disproportionate share of those working in areas hit hardest by COVID-19. For example, we represent nearly 40 percent of New York’s doctor workforce.

But even though we’re working on the front lines of the pandemic, there’s still some stigma associated with being a graduate of an international medical school. I’ve experienced some of that stigma firsthand.

For example, there’s a misconception that U.S. medical graduates receive a better education than IMGs and are therefore more qualified. Some also believe that international schools don’t support their students, or that IMGs struggle to obtain top-notch residencies.

But based on my experience, I’d argue that a top-tier, accredited international medical school can offer an education that’s every bit as good as — if not better than — the one the average U.S. medical school provides.

I decided to pursue my degree abroad after sitting on a waitlist at U.S. medical school for longer than I cared to. I’m not alone; many U.S. citizens choose to go overseas for their degrees. The reason for that is straightforward — there are more Americans who want to be doctors than there are openings at U.S. medical schools.

Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that the number of U.S. citizens who graduate from international medical schools has grown significantly over the past decade. I’ve worked alongside many of them over the past year.

Once international medical graduates finish their education, they have to pass the same exams and obtain the same certification requirements as graduates of U.S. medical schools. Students from my alma mater have had no trouble doing this — they pass the first step of the U.S. Licensing Exam at the same rate as students from U.S. and Canadian medical schools.

Furthermore, my classmates and I can attest that we’ve had no problem securing residencies. But we’re not outliers. Across the board, 2020 was a historic year for IMGs in the match. Over the last decade, my alma mater has sent more doctors into first-year U.S. residencies than any other school.

After they graduate, international medical graduates enter the workforce in a variety of specialties — ranging from pediatrics and emergency medicine to surgery and psychiatry.

At the end of the day, IMGs are successful doctors who make up a significant chunk of the U.S. doctor workforce. There are hundreds of us working in New York alone — and the rest practice in urban and rural areas all over the country, from Georgia and Texas to California and Michigan.

Hundreds of IMGs started their residencies this month — a time when cases are continuing to hit record-highs in a number of states. Without them, our physician workforce would be even more severely strained.

I’m proud to be an international medical graduate. Doctors like me have proved crucial to this country’s battle against COVID-19. They deserve the respect of the medical community.

Gaelle Antoine is an anesthesiology resident.

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