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Foreign-trained physicians providing care around Mississippi

Even though the Newton Regional Hospital has the newest building in the state, the rural 30-bed facility had no luck recruiting American physicians. They have had luck, however, recruiting foreign-trained physicians through the J-1 Visa Waiver Program administered by the Mississippi State Board of Health.

“Some hospitals don’t want foreign-born physicians but it has been good for us,” said Newton Regional administrator Tim Thomas. “In my experience it has been a long shot to get American-born physicians in rural areas, but we have had success with this program.”

Located in Newton, a town with a population of about 4,000, Newton Regional Hospital is welcoming Samuel Olaleye, M.D., to support the availability of internal medicine services for Medicare, Medicaid and low-income patients. He is the third foreign physician to locate there. One of the others recently left after being there10 years and another is still there after 11 years.

“There is absolutely a need here. We do try to find American physicians but we’ve had no luck with that and have had success with this program,” Thomas said. “In a rural hospital we can use any specialty. These physicians have to help in the emergency room and it’s more clinical in nature. They’re basically practicing primary care.”

Starting in September

Olaleye arrived in Newton on July 1 and will start his clinical practice in September, according to assistant administrator J.W. Chapman. “This gives him time to study for the state board,” Chapman said. “We’re excited about it and it really helps out rural facilities alike ours. It’s hard to attract American physicians to these areas.”

Olaleye is originally from Nigeria and was educated there but did a residency in Chicago. He is one of four foreign physicians approved for placement by the Board of Health.

The other three are Simon Rizk, M.D., at The Heart Center in Pascagoula; Venkataramana Garikiparthy, M.D., at the Family Health Center in Laurel; and Sohail Ahmed, M.D., at the Aaron Henry Community Health Services Center in Batesville. Rizk is supporting the availability of cardiology services and the others are supporting internal medicine services.

Sam Dawkins, a spokesman for the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), said Mississippi entered the J-1 Visa Program in 1994 and has placed approximately 394 physicians in rural areas throughout the state.

“We do hope the physicians will remain in the state after their required time of service is complete,” he said. “Approximately 40% do remain at their original sites and more than half remain within the state once they have completed their service obligations.”

The waiver guidelines require a three-year term of service but the MSDH recommends the employment contract be for a minimum of four years. A four or more year employment obligation indicates a commitment to the area and community.

Administered through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal agency, Mississippi applications are reviewed by MSDH’s Office of Primary Care Liaison, which also makes recommendations to the ARC. The main purpose of the program is to improve access to primary healthcare in areas of the state that have physician shortages. The state recognizes that the program affords the J-1 Visa holders the privilege of waiving their two-year foreign residency requirement in exchange for providing primary or specialty medical care in these designated areas.

“Since the program has expanded to include placement of specialist physicians, we anticipate that more residents will have access to specialty care as the physicians complete their service obligations and become U.S. citizens,” Dawkins said.

“The J-1 programs have been a valuable tool for responding to the unmet healthcare needs of rural, underserved areas of the state. J-1 physicians have provided staffing and healthcare services that may not have otherwise been available to these populations.”

Community acceptance

In Newton, Thomas says the community is accepting of foreign-born and trained physicians even though some patients have had a hard time understanding their accented English. “There’s always an element who doesn’t accept them but as a whole this community is very accepting,” he said. “We’ve been doing it. We broke ground.”

He admits there are cultural, religious and language differences to overcome but feels the community has adjusted to those differences. “It may be harder for the physicians to adjust. They’ve got to acclimate to our community,” he said.
Thomas said Olaleye will have an easier time adjusting. “He really stands out,” he said of the Nigerian physician. “His English is impeccable and there are no religion issues,” he said. “We’re very pleased to have him.”

He added that the hospital will continue to grow and has a loan application in to build a wellness/rehabilitation center. “We’re involved in the community. We think rural/community healthcare and leveraging relationships are very important to each other,” he said. “We think that’s key to our success.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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