My mother became a doctor in the midst of Egypt’s June 1967 war with the state of Israel, caring for children harmed by bomb explosions, tank fire, and gunfire. She grew up in Egypt in the backdrop of sweeping African anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, and was inspired to become a doctor at a time when African nations – and women – began to assert their independence. But women doctors were still pretty rare.
When my family emigrated to the United States in 1982, they settled in Los Angeles. Although my parents weren’t living in a time of armed conflict, as they had in Egypt, they entered a new country wrought with explicit white supremacy, institutional racism, xenophobia and a declining, trickle-down economy fueled by the recessive policies of Ronald Reagan. She turned her energies towards raising my brother and me. My mother always longed to return to medicine, and at the age of 60, she graduated from Villanova University in Philadelphia as a registered nurse. Although she did not go on to practice as a nurse, she proved that women health care workers are an amazing breed of love, determination, passion and service.
To my surprise, last August, CNN broadcast story about immigrant doctors who aren’t able to practice medicine in the U.S. for various reasons. The article highlighted the intersection between gender, health care and immigration, emphasizing the “…long, costly road to getting a medical license in the United States” for immigrant doctors. For the first time, I finally understood the scale and scope of my mother’s experience when I saw it reflected in this article. As I did more research, I found a 2013 New York Times article, which described the prevalent problem of the U.S. health care worker shortage and the barriers for well-trained international doctors who could fill that shortage. The article states:
“The process usually starts with an application to a private nonprofit organization that verifies medical school transcripts and diplomas. Among other requirements, foreign doctors must prove they speak English; pass three separate steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination; get American recommendation letters, usually obtained after volunteering or working in a hospital, clinic or research organization; and be permanent residents or receive a work visa (which often requires them to return to their home country after their training). The biggest challenge is that an immigrant physician must win one of the coveted slots in America’s medical residency system, the step that seems to be the tightest bottleneck.”
These barriers demonstrate U.S. public policy’s proclivity to cut off its nose to spite its face — that is, to enact immigration policies that not only limit the number of immigrants who can come to this country, but make their life (and ours) substantially harder. Thousands of well-trained immigrant doctors, nurses, technicians, etc., could help address the dire shortage of health care workers in several regions across the country, if not for these barriers. Understanding the system’s propensity helps one to understand that xenophobia and racism are driving factors in U.S. policy. Similar to the experiences of international doctors, U.S.-born Black people and people of color lack opportunities to pursue jobs or careers in the health and medical fields because of insufficient STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programs in middle and high schools, exorbitant fees associated with applying to medical school, restrictive licensing procedures, or few and highly competitive physician residency programs. As a result, women of color make up only 11.7 percent of active M.D. physicians in the U.S. while all women comprise 51 percent of the total population.
In the face of the growing gap between rich and poor, climate change, and other growing crises, people of color – especially immigrants – must play a leading role in improving health outcomes. Given the health care sector is the nation’s largest employer, we need well-trained women doctors, immigrant doctors, and other health care professionals and leaders, like my mother. In the era of #SayHerName, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other sweeping movements, we may be witnessing a renewed interest in building a world with, for, and led by girls and women of color.
We trust women of color. We need more women of color in healthcare.
My mother’s perseverance gives me hope, not just for the women of color who aim to be physicians or health care professionals, but for the girls and women who will lead the future. I am proud to do this work, inspired by my mother’s example, and fueled by the many and countless other women who will come.
Liz Derias-Tyehimba is Greenlining’s Senior Manager of Health Policy.