Immigrants step in to fill U.S. nursing shortage

There is an alarming perception that nurses who come from foreign countries are a low cost alternative to prevailing wages and that the care they provide is low quality. The fact is that foreign countries are losing their best and brightest according to a study by Dr. Marilyn E. Lorenzo, director of the Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies and professor at the University of the Philippines College of Public Health.

The nursing shortage in the United States has reached a level where hiring foreign nurses is not just an option but an economic necessity. There are currently more than 126,000 vacant nursing positions in the United States. The Department of Health and Human Services predicts this number will rise to 1 million by 2020, in part to nurses leaving the profession, but also to a greater demand for nurses as the baby boomers reach old age.

In 2004, over 37,000 applicants were rejected from nursing schools in the United States. Schools do not have the resources to train all the nurses needed as there is a faculty shortage. Many professionals with the qualifications to teach do not choose academia because they can make a better living working as bedside nurses.

This brings up the issue of mitigating the nursing shortage with foreign nurses.

In our state, the majority of immigrant nurses are from the Philippines and Canada, in that order. They come to the United States following heavy recruitment by

U.S. hospitals and travel agencies and the disillusionment with low nursing wages and poor working conditions in their home countries. They also want to show gratitude toward their families by providing them with financial support in return for their sacrifices.

These care providers are sometimes vulnerable to exploitation. There is one particular case where a California company recruited a Filipino nurse. She signed a contract that paid for her family travel and nursing license. In return, she agreed to a six-year contract. After her first year of practice, her hourly wage as a registered nurse was $12 while her nurse counterparts were making in excess of $30 an hour. The buy-out clause for this contract was $50,000!

Her entire family eventually pitched in to buy her out of this abusive labor condition.

Yes, you should be aware of the details when you sign a contract. But when you make $400 a month and recruitment companies offer to quadruple your salary, pay for your travel and certifications and promise to take care of you, the future is bright and irresistible.

I still hold an active nursing home administrator license. During my residential care days, I had the privilege of working with Filipino nurses who provided outstanding care. Coming from a country where elders are revered, these nurses give compassionate and respectful care to our elderly patients.

We are fortunate to have the ability to bring foreign nurses to mitigate the critical need for competent and caring professionals. Over the long term, our nursing schools should invest in the recruitment of qualified nursing professors, expand their student capacity and provide our high school graduates with the opportunity to enter this critical and noble profession.

Lourdes "Alfie" Alvarado is deputy director for the Department of Veterans Affairs and chair of the Governor's Affirmative Action Policy Committee. A member of The Olympian's Diversity Panel, Alvarado can be reached at alfiealvarado@msn.com.