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Department of State Eases Restrictions on Physicians to Address COVID-19

April 3, 2020

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Matthew Shick, Sr. Director, Gov't Relations & Regulatory Affairs

In the wake of the COVID-19 national emergency and persistent physician workforce shortages, the State Department released updated guidance to assist physicians training in the United States in responding to the pandemic and to help new physicians enter the country.

The Education Commission on Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) received guidance on April 2 from the department detailing permissible activities for medical residents on J-1 visas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guidance says that “the U.S. Department of State has no concerns with J-1 physicians engaging in alternate rotations and clinical assignments during the pandemic as deemed appropriate by a Sponsoring Institution’s Designated Institutional Official (DIO) and/or program director provided that all activities adhere to ACGME requirements outlined in its Response to Pandemic Crisis, including, but not limited to:  (1) activities are conducted under appropriate supervision; (2) activities adhere to established work hour requirements; (3) activities are conducted within an individual resident trainee’s area of knowledge and the trainee possesses the skills to provide the needed services.” The Department’s guidance is in line with the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education’s (ACGME) “Response to Pandemic Crisis.”

The guidance follows an update on visas for medical professionals that the department posted on March 26 encouraging physicians to request a visa appointment at their nearest embassy or consulates. Additionally, the notice directs J-1 medical residents to consult with the ECFMG to extend their stay in the United States. It also directs physicians on other visas, such as H-1B employment visas, who need to extend their stay or adjust their visa status to apply with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

While these directives are positive developments, the AAMC has also urged the State Department and USCIS to temporarily extend the stay of physicians during the COVID-19 national emergency, expedite approvals of extensions and changes of status (including resuming H-1B premium processing), and provide flexibility to redeploy physicians and medical residents as needed to respond to the pandemic.

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