Will Opening Doors to Foreign Medical Workers, Scientists Revive Global Mobility?

With COVID-19 wrecking havoc worldwide, it won’t be surprising to see affluent countries dangle big research money and great job opportunities for scientists and medical professionals, especially the brightest ones in their fields of expertise. It remains to be seen, though, if immigration policies will accommodate the expected surge in demand for people in the healthcare field.

The United States has had its history of inviting the best of the brightest from anywhere to the US, in a time when it was more open to the world. Back in the 1970s, non-citizens reportedly claimed around one-quarter of the doctorates awarded in the United States in physical sciences, engineering, mathematics and computer science. By 2010, their share had risen to more than half, according to the US National Science Foundation.

Those who benefited from this included husband-and-wife Taiwanese neuroscientists Yuh Nang Jan and Lily Jan who have run their laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco for more than three decades. In 2012, the Jans won the $500,000 Gruber prize for their discoveries in molecular neurobiology. 

The infusion of capital for scientists is certainly enough enticement for them and for global mobility recruiters, enough of an impetus to jumpstart a stalled industry. Healthcare facilities may once again draw on a global talent pool to make up for weaknesses in the US science-education system, especially because of the virus’ continued threat. 

To cite an example, of the world’s most highly cited scientists from 1981 to 2003, Nature reported that one in eight were born in developing countries, but 80% of those had since moved to developed countries (mostly the US), according to a 2010 study by Bruce Weinberg at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Global mobility may have slowed down for other professions but scientists and medical professionals have always been in huge demand and will continue to be for those willing to take them.

In the early 2000s, it will be recalled that more than 50,000 nurses (many of foreign descent) helped fill the shortage of nurses in American healthcare facilities, both in hospitals and nursing homes, with the latter serving as home for the more than 35 million aging Baby Boomers at the time. That number is now estimated at 73 million.

Global mobility in medical and science fields

Global mobility professionals also enjoyed a windfall as the United States opened its doors to address the shortage. 

One New York-based company, JUNO Healthcare, even grew its business by 200% from 2001 to the following year, on account of the many foreign nurses it recruited from the Philippines and it deployed to work in US healthcare facilities. 

The open-door policy was short-lived, though. The State Department enacted “retrogression” for registered nurses and physical therapist immigrant visas in November 2006. 

However, the nursing shortage still persists to this day, especially during the pandemic where even retired nurses went back to help out over-capacitated hospitals with COVID-19-stricken patients.

Current realities 

So far, there have been many local job movements on account of the rising cases of infected people and the need for a vaccine. 

This may spur the US government to expedite recruitment of foreign medical workers and researchers, if the local hires are not enough. 

It could then prompt many migrants to come to the US for the many benefits it offers, including getting research funding and improving their career prospects. Quality of life in the United States, especially in northern California, will play a huge factor. 

High salaries have always been the biggest attraction in the medical and science fields in the United States but that may not be the case anymore, because of the restrictive immigration policies. 

Will we see a change in how the government sees the disruption of the virus in our lives and work toward not just having an effective vaccine but also in getting more professionals to administer them? That remains to be seen.