By Lisa Hager
Twelve years ago in San Francisco, a doctor originally from Mexico City named José Ramón Fernández-Peña founded the first Welcome Back Center, a place where doctors, nurses, dentists, and other health care professionals who trained outside the United States could find vital information and resources about securing health care jobs in their newly adopted communities.
That first center, based at City College of San Francisco, has expanded to include nine others nationwide. That includes, I’m proud to say, the Northwest Washington Welcome Back Center at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, part of the Welcome Back Initiative (www.welcomebackinitiative.org).
The Welcome Back program, for immigrants who are either citizens or have green cards, helps put their experience, training, and knowledge — not to mention bilingual skills — to work in their new communities. More than 65 people — from 27 different countries and speaking 30 different languages — have seen positive results from the program at EdCC.
The program’s benefit to immigrant health care workers is huge.
Many arrive here and learn that their training does not translate to a comparable job. Consequently, they may find themselves on public support and working low level jobs. But, with help from EdCC’s Welcome Back Center, they can obtain their Washington state license, seek guidance in reaching their health care career goals, or explore other options in the health care field.
Just as important is the program’s benefit to communities, which can further diversify their workforces. Our cities and towns are better served if more people make appointments for well-baby checks, prenatal care, and other important visits. And research shows that immigrants are more likely to get regular checkups if they feel a connection to their health care providers. It’s simply more efficient if patients connect with those who speak their language and understand their culture. There are plenty of success stories. Here’s just one:
A doctorate-level pharmacist entered the Welcome Back Center one day, seeking help in qualifying to take the pharmacy licensing exam. A permanent U.S. resident, she was seeking credit for the education, training, and experience she earned in Iran.
Although she trained as a pharmacy technician at EdCC in hope of finding related employment, her real goal was to become a licensed pharmacist. However, the Washington State Department of Health determined that she needed an additional 1,000 hours of clinical supervision as an intern — almost six months working full-time — to qualify for the exam.
Prior to arriving at the center, this hard-working woman told me she’d sent out more than 100 inquiries for jobs and internships, with no luck. But although internship opportunities for any health training program are usually limited to currently enrolled students, thanks to the Welcome Back Center this pharmacist was able to secure a spot at a nearby tribal clinic pharmacy.
I’m happy to say she’s now well on her way to becoming fully licensed to practice.
Getting back into the heath care field is not easy, as our pharmacist from Iran will tell you. The time and energy participants must put forth takes a concentrated commitment, meaning those who want to enter health-care professions in the U.S. are highly motivated. But it’s not simply motivation that’s required. Those seeking licensing take the same tests as everyone else, so they must be fluent in English and have a working understanding of current medical practices and procedures in their fields.
Here’s the challenge: Helping immigrants assimilate into health care professions is not something accomplished in the short term. Welcome Back Centers are nonprofit, and services are free. We rely on grant funding, which is money well spent for both immigrants and their communities.
To learn more about the Northwest Washington Welcome Back Center at Edmonds Community College, go to www.edcc.edu/welcomeback.
Lisa Hager is coordinator of the Northwest Washington Welcome Back Center at Edmonds Community College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.