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Analysis

Immigrants Comprise More Than 18% of Healthcare Workers

By Jack O'Brien  
   June 03, 2019

Healthcare executives are faced with challenges about retaining immigrant workers ahead of the rise in elderly care, according to a study released Monday afternoon.

Nearly 20% of healthcare workers in 2017 were immigrants, displaying the outsized role of immigrants in the healthcare system, according to a study published in Health Affairs Monday afternoon. 

In the formal and nonformal long-term care sector, almost a quarter of workers were immigrants, while 27.5% of direct care workers were immigrants. Meanwhile, just over 30% of nursing home housekeeping and maintenance workers were immigrants.

In 2017, immigrants constituted a 15.5% share of the U.S. population, with legal noncitizen immigrants accounting for 5.2% percent of the population, showing the heavy reliance of healthcare companies and individuals in need of care on the nation's immigrant population.

Leah Zallman, director of research at the Institute for Community Health and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told HealthLeaders that the study is part of a growing literature about America's reliance on an immigrant labor, especially in healthcare.

"I think this is demonstrating that cutting back on immigration would leave not only the elderly and disabled [populations], but the remainder of the American population without the care they need, and also without the subsidies that we need to keep our insurance system afloat," Zallman said.

Related: California Democrats Face Off Over Healthcare For Illegal Immigrants

Compared to their native born counterparts, immigrant healthcare workers are typically older and work longer, later shifts, according to the study.

Zallman said that the healthcare industry relies on laborers working around the clock, adding that immigrant workers essentially fill the roles that native born workers don't. 

There's also an interesting pattern regarding immigrant workers in healthcare, according to Zallman, as immigrants make up a considerable portion of both high-paying jobs like physicians as well as low-paying positions like direct care workers.

Related: A Medical Sanctuary For Migrant Farmworkers

While hospitals and health systems currently grapple with physician and nursing shortages, as well as high turnover rates and low retention rates, executives will be pressed to ensure that the more than 3 million immigrant healthcare workers remain available.

By 2030, the Institute of Medicine projects an additional 3.5 million healthcare workers will be needed in the U.S., while the elderly population is expected to double by 2050.

The combination is likely to place an even greater need on employees in the long-term care sector, according to study, especially if policies that further restrict immigration are passed at the state and federal level.

Related: 4 Steps to Improve Depression Care for Multicultural Communities

Zalllman said the policies that have been enacted thus far have already affected the availability of healthcare workers, and will continue to do so if nothing is done.

"I think if I were a healthcare executive reading this report, [what] I would take away is that I ought to be scared about the availability of this type of workforce going forward," Zallman said. "If I want to ensure that my patients have access to care that they need, then advocating on behalf of the immigrant community, would be a beneficial [approach]."

Jack O'Brien is the finance editor at HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Healthcare executives will be pressed to ensure that the more than 3 million immigrant healthcare workers remain available.

Compared to their native born counterparts, immigrant healthcare workers are typically older and work longer, later shifts, according to the study.

Leah Zallman, director of research at the Institute for Community Health and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said executives ought to be "scared about the availability of this type of workforce going forward."


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