Foreign-Educated Nurses Across the Country Fill a Critical Role | Opinion

Jennifer E. Engen

Foreign-educated nurses are an integral component of our nation’s health care delivery system, often adding a much-needed layer of support to hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities, many of which have faced ongoing nursing shortages for nearly 40 years. These staffing challenges were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of patients surged, and nearly 1 in 5 health care workers left their jobs often citing physical, mental, or emotional stress.

During this unprecedented time, nurses were on the front lines providing critical care to patients across the United States. And as the pandemic rolled through different regions of the country, the flexibility provided by foreign-educated nurses helped alleviate shortages in communities from coast to coast.

Specific to filling those shortages were health care staffing firms that often stood in the gap by providing well-trained care professionals where there was the most acute need. For example, Cincinnati-based Health Carousel, one of the largest certified ethical recruitment and staffing firms, worked during the pandemic to provide hospital administrators with easier, faster access to a nationwide network of qualified health care workers.

Many of the foreign-educated nurses in the U.S. largely come from the Philippines, Europe, India, and Africa. This is a mutually beneficial relationship as many of these nurses come to the U.S. with their immediate families to experience and gain the benefits of living in the U.S., while also earning enough money to send to relatives back in their home country. In places like the Philippines, these remittances can account for nearly 9 percent of the nation’s GDP, with revenue sent from the U.S. making up more than 40 percent of that amount.

Some critics of foreign-educated nurses argue that the U.S. shouldn’t poach the talent of poorer countries. But many of these nurses dedicated years of service to their countries, and eventually decided it was time to do what was best for them and their families. That’s why one nurse from the Philippines told PBS that it was a thirteen-year dream for her to work in the U.S., where foreign-educated nurses are often provided with incentive packages including compensation for relocation, good pay, and benefits.

Nurse staffing agencies give health care facilities access to more qualified nurses, often with specialties not readily available in their community. Foreign-educated nurses are able to help in some of the most challenging assignments, giving relief to staff nurses. In addition, foreign-educated nurses help reduce overtime costs, allowing staff nurses to achieve a work-life balance and experience a supportive workplace culture, while also helping to moderate health care costs.

Now with, what we hope, is the worst of the pandemic behind us, there are still staffing needs due to nurses who left the profession because of pandemic burnout, seasonal changes, and sudden increases in hospital activity. In states like Florida, Mississippi, and New Hampshire with the largest demand, foreign-educated nurses have been able to fill the void when hospitals experience staffing shortages. And as the baby boomer generation comes of retirement age, the need for nursing specialists will continue to rise. 

Foreign-educated nurses provide important access to quality care at a reasonable cost to communities and individuals that otherwise go lacking. Policymakers and the health care industry should continue to support the nursing profession and provide opportunities and support to nurses and health care specialists who sacrifice so much to provide the care that patients across the country need.

Rear Admiral Kenneth Moritsugu, M.D., was the Deputy Surgeon General of the United States and has served as Acting Surgeon General.

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