Immigrants in Health Care

Immigrants in Health Care

Immigrants in Health Care: Keeping Americans Healthy Through Care and Innovation is a collaborative project by George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research and The Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, that concludes that while immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they play a disproportionate role in American health care.

The Importance of Immigrants

The importance of immigrants to health care in the United States cannot be overstated. They have vital roles in medicine, medical science and long-term care, and they have a growing presence in nursing. Immigrants fill critical vacancies, bring education and skill from their homeland, and help to provide culturally competent care to an increasingly diverse patient population. They also play a critical role in innovations to improve the health of all Americans. 

Immigrants are 13% of the U.S. population, and:

28% of physicians and surgeons

40% of medical scientists in manufacturing research and development

50%+ of medical scientists in biotechnology in states with a strong biotechnology sector

22% of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides

15% of registered nurses

Forty-six percent of foreign-born (immigrant) physicians and surgeons go into internal medicine where there are vast shortages of practitioners, whereas only 15% of U.S. medical graduates do so. Immigrant physicians also practice in rural and inner-city areas where physician shortages persist.

The American Medical Association predicts the demand for physicians will exceed supply by a range of 46,000 to 90,000 by 2025. Many roles will need to be filled as an aging longer-lived population puts increased demand on the medical system, as well as the Affordable Care Act, making healthcare available to more people.  Foreign-born physicians and surgeons will be a critical part of meeting this demand for physicians.

International health work is dramatically increasing due to the global economy. American immigrant physicians working abroad are often cultural bridges and brokers, which creates goodwill toward the U.S.

Foreign-born medical scientists work in the development of drugs and therapeutic interventions to cure diseases and improve human health. They are 42% of researchers in the top seven cancer research centers in the U.S., a disease that touches most of our lives.

Immigrants also keep the U.S. on the cutting edge of innovation in the pharmaceutical industry comprising 33% of the entire research and development occupational group in pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Immigrants are crucial to the long-term health care market, where the age group 65 and older will be 20% of the total population by 2030 (72 million). Many Americans are living into their 80s and 90s. As a result this aging population is likely to have a need for more medical care.

The 65 and older population is also diversifying in race and ethnicity, while the non-Hispanic white population is projected to decline from 88% in 2010 to 58% of the total population by 2050.

The foreign-born are particularly concentrated in home health care, the fastest growing sector in health care, which is fundamental to making it possible for the rapidly increasing senior population to “age in place.” These health care workers are predominately female and are in jobs with low pay and no benefits.

The foreign-born in nursing has been consistently around 13% to 15%. They are currently concentrated in just five states and work primarily in hospitals. Licensure of foreign-born nurses has been difficult because there is no international definition of what it means to be a nurse. This is further compounded by multiple accreditation levels in the nursing occupational spectrum.

There is no question that immigrants (foreign-born individuals) play critical roles in both the high-skilled professions and in low-skill positions in long-term and home health care. They fill critical vacancies at each end of the spectrum and bring cultural and linguistic skills that build bridges to an increasingly diverse group of health care consumers. High-skilled immigrants also play key roles in medical science where they are developing life-saving drugs and treatment protocols and keeping the U.S. on the cutting edge of innovation.

Immigrants are equally important to nursing, where culturally competent care is critical to effective medical treatment.  However, foreign-born doctors and nurses face substantial barriers to licensure. The U.S. is losing the talent and skills of these professionals in an industry that is growing and needs more practitioners, particularly practitioners who reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the health care consumers they serve. The complete report is available for download on the sidebar along with a Fact Sheet generated from this report. For any questions please email us at