When the Doctor Doesn’t Look Like You
By PAULINE W. CHEN, M.D.
Published: August 12, 2010
One night during my training, over dinner in the hospital cafeteria, a fellow resident and I had a discussion about the situation of one of our professors. Known for his blistering teaching sessions, this senior surgeon possessed the uncanny ability to sniff out lapses in memory or judgment among doctors-in-training. Early on in my internship, I showed up at one of his practice trauma resuscitations blissfully unprepared. I left an hour later with his booming and rapid-fire admonitions still ringing in my ears. “You call yourself a doctor?” he had thundered. “This patient may just be a dummy, but you are killing her!”
Nonetheless, this surgeon soon became a favorite of ours. He was brilliant in the operating room, gentle at the patients’ bedside and, as I quickly learned, highly effective in the classroom. What continued to vex me, however, was not the peculiarity of his teaching style; it was his inability to attract patients. While other, less-skilled senior doctors had waiting rooms that were overflowing, his was not.
“If I were sick,” I said to my fellow resident that night, “I know which surgeon I would ask for.”
“But you can understand why some patients and referring doctors don’t go to him,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Other guys wear Brooks Brothers, have recognizable last names and carry a degree from the ‘right’ medical school. But when a potential patient or referring doctor sees our guy, all they might notice is a foreigner with an accent and a strange name who graduated from a medical school in some developing country.”
Our professor had been born abroad and immigrated to the United States after medical school. But despite clinical accomplishments and professional accolades in this country, I knew, like my fellow resident, that there were patients and physicians whose initial impulse was to dismiss him or any other doctor with an accent or an international degree.
For more than 50 years, international medical school graduates like my former professor have filled the gaps in the physician work force in the United States. Currently, they make up fully one-quarter of all practicing physicians, and although a majority are foreign-born, approximately 20 percent are American citizens who have chosen to go abroad, most notably to the Caribbean, for medical school.
Regardless of whether they are United States citizens, all international graduates must go through an arduous regulatory process before practicing in this country, a process that includes verification of medical school diplomas and transcripts, residency training in American hospitals and the same national three-part licensing exams and specialty tests that their medical school counterparts in this country take. Many go on to choose specialties or work in the rural and disadvantaged geographic locations that their American counterparts shun. International graduates, for example, now account for nearly 30 percent of all primary care doctors, a specialty that has had increasing difficulties attracting American medical students.
Though these doctors have filled an important national health care need for over half a century, doubts regarding the quality of care they provide have continued to plague them. Health care experts interested in this issue have been stymied over the years by inadequate methodologies for evaluating the effectiveness of large groups of physicians and so have chosen instead to focus on exam scores, an admittedly crude proxy for quality of care.
But even that data has proven confusing. Studies initially revealed that international graduates tended to score lower, while more recent research shows that they routinely outperform their peers on training exams in areas like internal medicine.
Now researchers from the Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research in Philadelphia have published the first study incorporating new research methods for evaluating the performance of large groups of physicians. And it turns out that contrary to certain individuals’ worst fears, accent or nationality did not affect patient outcomes. Rather, the main factor was being board-certified: completing a full residency at an accredited training program, passing written and, depending on the specialty, oral examinations, and having proof of experience with a defined set of clinical problems and technical procedures.
The researchers examined the records of more than 240,000 patients who were hospitalized for either congestive heart failure or heart attack and examined how their outcomes correlated with their doctors’ education and background. They found no differences in mortality rates between those patients cared for by graduates of international or American medical schools. But on closer review, they found that two factors did contribute significantly to differences in patient outcomes.
Dividing the international medical graduates into those who were foreign-born and those who were American citizens who chose to study abroad, the researchers discovered that patients of foreign-born primary care physicians fared significantly better than patients of American primary care doctors who received their medical degrees either here or abroad. John J. Norcini, lead author of the study and president of the foundation, postulates that the differences may stem from the fact that as primary care has become less attractive for graduates of American medical schools, it has also become less competitive. “The foreign international medical graduates are some of the smartest kids from around the world,” he said. “When they come over, they tend to fill in where the U.S. medical school graduates don’t necessarily go.”
Dr. Norcini and his co-investigators also found that patient mortality rates were related to the doctor’s board certification and time since medical school graduation, regardless of his or her background. Those physicians in the study who were board-certified had substantially lower death rates among their patients. And the greater the number of years since medical school graduation, the more likely that doctor was to have a patient with heart attack or congestive heart failure die in the hospital.
“If you put these two pieces of data together,” Dr. Norcini said, “they make a strong argument for board certification and the maintenance of certification programs currently being put in place to improve the periodic reassessment of board-certified doctors.”
While the results of this study will help Dr. Norcini and other medical educators further refine the regulatory process for physicians from international and domestic medical schools, Dr. Norcini points out that there is a “huge heterogeneity in all these groups” and cautions doctors and patients against making broad generalizations about any physician group. Instead, when searching for the best doctors, he recommends focusing not on a doctor’s medical school or country of origin but rather on board certification.
“My hope is that we begin to rely more on objective markers like board certification as a statement of quality rather than where someone went to medical school,” Dr. Norcini said. “One can always ask a doctor if he or she is board-certified and involved in maintaining that certification. It’s a straightforward quality marker, and it’s a question that’s easy to ask.”
He added, “And as a patient, I find that reassuring.”
Share your thoughts on this column on the Well blog, “Doctors Who Study Outside the U.S.”
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