Number of Immigrant Doctors in Oregon Growing

May 24, 2018

Dr. Ehsan Hazrat

As the Trump administration continues efforts to rein in immigration, the state of Oregon is trying harder to recruit a certain kind of immigrant to help with a wide-spread shortage.  State and local health officials are hoping to add to Oregon's relatively large number of foreign-born doctors.

Dr. Ali Khaki, a surgeon in Lincoln City, remembers being a military doctor in Baghdad under Sadaam Hussein in the late eighties.  There was devastation and the pressure was intense:

"We were fighting. We operate continuously. We looked in the window, it's daytime. We operate, and now it's night. And then we operate, daytime again until another crew comes and relieves us."

Foreseeing no end to war, he decided to leave Iraq and chose the U.S. for professional reasons:

"I believe the American medicine is the best in the world. My dream was to get the American boards of surgery."

Khaki is one of two-thousand immigrants in Oregon who are doctors, 14-percent of the total:

Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer
Credit Karen Richards

"These immigrant doctors are amazing."

Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer represents the Oregon Medical Association and is the health officer for Douglas County, which has long relied on foreign-born and trained physicians:

"From Romania, Syria, a number of doctors from India, Peru, a doctor from Nepal. The doctors who come to the United States are the cream of the crop in their countries. Doctors overall are a really hardworking group, but these foreign-born doctors really have a work ethic."

By geography, nearly half of the state of Oregon is categorized as medically underserved, from Astoria to Brookings, from Reedsport to Roseburg to Riley. Mark Overbeck, who directs the state's primary care office, says the shortages are serious:

"We have profound shortages in places like Drain, Yoncalla in Douglas County, in Florence, in Veneta, to take some of the areas in just Lane and Douglas County."

Doctor Lesley Ogden, who heads Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital, says one of the main reasons is fairly simple:

"Until very recently, we've had only one medical school in all of our state, and we have not kept up with development of our own physician corps."

Lincoln County has also relied on immigrant doctors, but there's still a shortage.  So now, Samaritan North's hospitals in Lincoln City and Newport have decided to join what's called the J-1 program, where foreign medical students can stay in Oregon if they agree to serve at least three years in underserved areas. But, in a way, the coastal county is swimming against the tide:

"About the time we decided to start up our program again was when we started seeing a lot of stresses on the immigration system from the political side of things.  And we were like, oh no!.  This is going to hurt us."

Oregon has three hundred and fifty J-1 physicians, including Ehsan Hazrat, a primary care doctor originally from Afghanistan who works in the PeaceHealth clinic in Cottage Grove. He says the benefits go both ways:

"It has a good positive impact also on the people who come here, the immigrants themselves. They would actually reach their potential, their children have good schools that they could go to."

In a few months, Hazrat will be free to leave Cottage Grove and work anywhere in the U.S.:

"But I'm not planning because there is a need and you get a lot of respect from your patients and you develop a relationship with these patients.  Most of these doctors could leave after three years, but they stay for twenty-five, thirty years, until they retire."

The shortage  of physicians is expect to increase, but Oregon may have an advantage over some other areas of the country. It seems to be more welcoming to immigrants, judged by things like its participation in a lawsuit to stop the travel ban, and its sanctuary status. The state's Mark Overbeck:

"Over the past several years, as I think the story of Oregon has become better known internationally, people have chosen to come here. Oregon has a great reputation for progressive healthcare."

Doctor Ali Khaki, the Samaritan North Lincoln surgeon, and a Muslim, says Oregon's reputation for tolerance is one reason he came here.  And that was borne out back on 9/11:

"Our home phone started calling, one after the other. They are parents of our kids' friends in school. We don't know them. It's like a mother and an adopted mother, you know.  You love your mother, but you love your adopted mother. It's the same feeling."

Khaki says he will spend the rest of his career in Oregon, the state that has embraced him.

Funding for KLCC's Borders, Migration, and Belonging series provided by Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.