28% of US doctors are immigrants. There’s already a doctor shortage—Trump’s ban could make it worse

Dr. Mohammad Jaber  immigrated from Syria to the United States to pursue a medical degree.
Dr. Mohammad Jaber immigrated from Syria to the United States to pursue a medical degree.
Image: Reuters Photo/Max Whittaker
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US president Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning entry to the US from seven majority-Muslim countries has unsettled industries that rely on immigrants for skilled labor. The loudest opposition has come from Silicon Valley, which employs thousands of foreign workers, though other industries are likely to be even harder hit. The problem may be most acute in healthcare.

More than a quarter of America’s physicians and surgeons (28%, as of 2015) were born outside the US, according to data from the American Community Survey (ACS)—a yearly survey conducted by the Census Bureau. The majority of those immigrants are naturalized American citizens, but nearly 75,000 (7.5% of all doctors) are non-citizens working on visas.

The aging American population has a growing shortage of physicians and surgeons. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates that by 2025 the shortfall will be at least 62,000 doctors, and possibly as many as 95,000 (pdf). One frequent proposal for addressing this problem—already adopted in Minnesota—is to try to attract more foreign doctors to the US.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many immigrant health workers will be directly affected by Trump’s executive order.  Of the seven affected countries, two have supplied significant numbers doctors to the US: About 10,000 Iranian physicians work in the US and about half as many Syrian doctors, according to the ACS. Forbes reports that 260 people from the affected countries have applied for residencies at American medical colleges—and each of those would see 3,000 patients if they were matched to a position.

Looking further ahead, the larger threat to the understaffed US healthcare system may be Trump’s “America first” economic policies. Nearly 75,000 Indian doctors work in the US, along with another 25,000 from China. Together those two countries have supplied about 10% of all US doctors. Further tightening of border controls or damaging relations with either country could stall the flow of new doctors, and make it that much more difficult for Americans to get timely medical care.

American Community Survey data reported in this story was extracted from IPUMS-USA, a project of the University of Minnesota. All numbers have less than a 30% margin-of-error (at 90% confidence).