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Advocates say immigrants could help Florida ease health care worker shortage

Some hospitals are facing a vicious cycle as nurses leave their staff jobs to make more money at other hospitals as traveling nurses. Training nurses in critical-care skills has become a fraught gamble, says Jonathan Emling, a nurse and the ECMO director at Ascension Saint Thomas in Nashville: "We will train these people, and then six months later they will be gone and traveling."
Blake Farmer/WPLN News

A report from the American Immigration Council is urging states like Florida to make it easier for foreign-trained medical workers to practice in their fields. It comes as the state is dealing with a health worker shortage while its aging population grows.

The demand for health workers in Florida rose by 80% between 2017 and 2021, according to the report. The need for nurses and bilingual staff rose even higher.

One way to help address the need is to remove some of the barriers that make it hard for immigrant medical workers to get jobs in their field, said Mo Kantner, the council’s director of state and local initiatives.

Getting recertified to practice in the U.S. can be challenging and costly for international medical professionals. It often involves taking exams, submitting extensive documentation about training and having a certain amount of clinical experience.

It’s not easy to meet those demands while also getting settled in their new home.

“When you think of the entire process that immigrants have to go through when they come to this country whether it's confirming work authorization, learning English — and particularly industry-specific English — finding stable housing. All of that takes time,” said Kantner.

Some medical workers end up taking lower-level jobs within the health care industry or working outside it altogether.

The report found in 2021, nearly 40% of immigrants with professional or doctoral degrees in Florida worked in health care jobs that that did not require that level of certification.

“And so that just ends up being a waste of skills, talent and experience, particularly when these people have the experience, they want to work in their field and there's this critical need within the employer landscape, and we can’t help connect those dots,” said Kantner.

She points to Minnesota as a model Florida lawmakers could look to for possible solutions.

Minnesota’s legislature established an International Medical Graduate Program in 2015 that helps secure residencies for prospective doctors in the state who commit to working in rural or underserved areas. The state also offers assistance to health workers to improve English proficiency and navigate the licensure process.
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.
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