Dr. Claudia Castillo Tussey: Immigrants can solve N.C.’s doctor shortage

Winston-Salem Journal, July 9, 2019. By Dr. Claudia Castillo Tussey.

President Trump says “our country is full,” but as a family medicine physician at Wake Forest Baptist Health and United Health Centers, I’ve seen first-hand that we don’t just have plenty of room — we actually have a pressing need for more workers.

I’m an immigrant myself — I was born in Peru and came here in 2001 after my mother married an American citizen. As a student at UNC-Charlotte, I worked as a medical interpreter at Carolina Medical Center, and was shocked by how often I’d see patients whose conditions could have been prevented if only they’d seen a doctor sooner. It was the desire to help more people get the care they needed that led me to study medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, and today I care for nearly 100 patients a week as one of our clinic’s two primary care physicians.

We’re doing vital work helping underserved communities, treating people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, and helping uninsured patients who in some cases have gone years without seeing a doctor. We’d like to treat even more patients, but for that we’d need to hire more doctors and nurses, and in Winston-Salem — like most other parts of North Carolina — there’s a chronic shortage of health care professionals. Estimates show that North Carolina will require an additional 1,800 family physicians in the next decade to meet the health needs of its growing population; already, 88 percent of North Carolina’s rural counties are considered “medical deserts” and lack access to primary care.

That’s why foreign-born physicians like me are so important. Immigrants are twice as likely as the American-born to become physicians and surgeons, according to New American Economy, and nationwide 27.7 percent of physicians and 23.7 percent of nursing aides are foreign-born. Immigrant doctors are also more likely to relocate to the poor and rural communities where they’re most needed: in America’s poorest neighborhoods, more than 42 percent of medical professionals are foreign-born.

In today’s America, citizens of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds are found, and most of us share the belief that we are a greater nation because of the plurality of cultures and people. In many situations, foreign-born physicians can provide culturally-appropriate care to this diverse population. Our commonalities help us build a stronger rapport and better communicate with these patients, which prevents and reduces disease, creating a healthier community overall and limiting health care expenditures.

Immigrants are perhaps willing to work in underserved communities because we understand what it means to struggle. When I first left Peru as a teenager, it wasn’t easy to adjust to life in Charlotte. Still, there was no time to complain. My mom and I worked together cleaning houses and catering banquets to support the family. I worked throughout my time in high school, college and medical school, putting in shifts as a restaurant server, a bank teller and a research assistant before finally becoming a doctor.

My brothers also learned the importance of hard work: one graduated from UNC-Charlotte with a degree in computer engineering and now does security work as an analyst for Wells Fargo. The youngest is a sophomore at Florida State University and is considering medical school. Like me, they’re proud of their success, and deeply committed to making their communities better.

When I became a U.S. citizen in 2009, I beamed as I was sworn in. After all my hard work, I knew that it was both a responsibility and a privilege to become a citizen, and I was determined to give back to my country in any way I could. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since, helping to bring world-class medical care to poor and underserved communities in our great state.

I know that my community is better off because I was given the chance to come to America, to train as a doctor and to put down roots here. We need to encourage more immigrants to follow suit, and to welcome them into our communities — because foreign-born workers like me will have a vital part to play as we try to solve North Carolina’s looming health care crisis.

Dr. Claudia Castillo Tussey is a family medicine physician at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem. She was a 2012 Lambarene Schweitzer Fellow.