The Medical Society of Sedgwick County on Oct. 1 celebrated its physicians who are international medical graduates, or IMGs. Their rich cultures and diverse experiences help make Wichita a well-rounded community of talented physicians.
“Our community has benefitted so much from the decades of hard work, intelligence, compassion and good medical care IMGs bring,” MSSC President Michael Lievens, MD, said. “It’s surprising how many countries are represented. Our community has been richly blessed.”
MSSC has 190 members who graduated from medical schools in 40 different foreign countries. Retired MSSC members bring the country total to 50.
The Oct. 1 IMG dinner featured four panelists who shared their medical school training and residency experiences, and how they came to practice medicine in the United States. The speakers were family medicine physician Claudia Wendell, MD, originally from Colombia; internal medicine physician Samuel Akidiva, MD, from Kenya; nephrologist Usha Challa, MD, from India; and gastroenterologist Estephan Zayat, MD, from Lebanon.
Most of the panelists finished 12 years of schooling in their countries before going straight to medical school. Medical school typically consisted of the early sciences — anatomy, physiology and chemistry — and then split off into a variety of advanced medical training, residencies, internships and, in some cases, government-mandated work programs.
In India, for example, at the end of five years, med students do a one-year intern ship and get to choose electives such as ENT or ophthalmology, Challa said. “In India, it’s highly competitive to get into any of these. Most people work a year or two, get into fellowships and then super specialization,” she said.
Zayat, who attended the American University of Beirut, said his training was similar, but with the added flavor of wartime hazards.
“The only thing kind of spicy about my medical school is that it was during a time of war so it was not unusual to study a book with three or four candles lit so you can see,” Zayat said. “It was not unusual to be walking back and forth to school and have snipers sniping at trees above.”
Wendell’s Colombian medical school had a program partnership with the University of Miami, so Wendell finished her internship in Florida. “Long story short, I got married and never went back,” she said.
Akidiva said he worked in Kenya for five years before he came to the United States. He went back to medical school to study HIV/AIDS more in depth and took care of more than 100,000 patients during that time. Then he came to visit his sister in Wichita and met HIV/AIDS specialist Donna Sweet, MD. “The rest is history,” Akidiva said. “She essentially held my hand and helped me get into residency program here and shepherded me through it.”
Akidiva said it was a challenge to make the transition to U.S. medicine, especially coming from a place where the language and culture is so different. “I am grateful for the IMGs in Wichita because when you come from a foreign country, you meet other people and become very good friends,” he said.
International medical graduates — who must pass a U.S. medical licensing examination, be certified by an educational commission and go through a U.S. medical residency program in order to practice medicine here — make up about a quarter of the physicians in the United States, according to a 2015 study.
Challa said in India, women physicians are expected to do OB/GYN. She just didn’t want to do it. Although she started in an OB/GYN residency, she barely finished one year before coming to the U.S. “My passion is internal medicine, nephrology,” Challa said. Language wasn’t a huge barrier for her, either, as English is taught as a second — and, in her case, third — language in schools in India. But she really hit the studying hard between 12th grade and medical school to excel at the MCAT-equivalent test. “We had the option of taking it in English or the local languages,” Challa said. “I chose English because there were more books available to prepare.”
Some audience members asked about the political climate today for international physicians. Do they feel less welcome?
“Well, it’s complicated,” Wendell said. “I think no one will leave their country if they were happy and able to take care of their families.” Challa said she has noticed that it’s becoming increasing difficult for Indian physicians to come here to practice, much of it having to do with very expensive steps that start with applying for visas, then taking exams and waiting for residencies. “People think very seriously before leaving nowadays,” she said.
Zayat said he is always recruiting physicians to come to Wichita, particularly ones who trained here or had fellowships here. “Wichita is not a very sexy city to ask people to come practice in,” he said. “But if you have a relationship with Wichita, a link to Wichita, it’s an easy sell.”
In the end, every panelist said Wichita welcomed them with warmth and candor. “Wichita chose me,” Akidiva said. “I wasn’t the most qualified person to do the residency program, but Wichita gave a foreign medical graduate a chance — and I did so on the strength of all the other ones who had gone before me.”