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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Helping to start anew

August 8, 2011

Liban Hired, Jibril Elabe, and Liban Farah.

Left to right: Liban Hired, Jibril Elabe, and Liban Farah were the beneficiaries of the U’s Preparation for Residency Program to help immigrant doctors become physicians in Minnesota. Hired is a resident at North Memorial, and Elabe and Farah are residents at Smiley’s Clinic.

Photo: Libby Frost

U program helps immigrant doctors become physicians in Minnesota

By Rick Moore

Somali-born Liban Hired attended medical school in Turkey and served a residency there, specializing in infectious diseases. Then, unable to stay in Turkey or safely return to his homeland, he came to America, the land of opportunity.

Turns out America can also be the land of obstacles, especially when it comes to foreign-trained doctors.

Hired, like an estimated 200-plus other immigrant doctors, was unable to get the experience necessary to land a residency here, let alone a license to practice medicine.

So he did the next best thing. Upon arriving in Minnesota, he took on two full-time jobs—working on an assembly line and filling orders—plus a half-time job on weekends, and at one point was working 96 hours a week. Not exactly what he went to medical school for. 

But nearly 12 years later, Hired is back on track. He’s in a residency program at North Memorial Hospital and on track to serve his community in family practice, thanks to a unique program funded for one year by the Minnesota Legislature and run by the University of Minnesota.

Locked out of the system

The problem for immigrant doctors is something of a Catch-22. To be accepted as a resident here, they need to meet highly specific prerequisites and have hands-on, clinical experience. But hospitals are hesitant to give them opportunities because of the uncertainty of their resumes; it’s easier to take American and international candidates coming straight out of well-known medical schools.

In Hired’s words, “You cannot get into the system.”

That’s not necessarily because of any inherent biases within that system, says Will Nicholson, a hospital physician and the program’s director.

“If you’re looking at an applicant and you can’t be sure of the quality of their education and their training, then it’s much harder to take that jump” and bring them on as a resident, Nicholson says.

It’s a situation that begs for some sort of external push.

In 2010 Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis sponsored a bill that provided $150,000 to the University to help prepare immigrant physicians to enter a residency program here.

After an open application process, three candidates were selected—all Somali doctors with significant hands-on experience, albeit not in America. They recently wrapped up seven months of training, comprising a month of general education, three months of inpatient general medicine, and three months of outpatient clinical work.

All three have now started their residencies.

“We were able to train three physicians at a fraction of what it would cost to train someone from scratch,” Nicholson points out. Best of all, the program helps address a shortage of medical professionals in immigrant communities. “We couldn’t need these people more,” he says.

An adjustment to the ‘machinery’

Nicholson gushes at the thought of helping three doctors fulfill their calling.

They were all tremendous talents, but were being held back by “superficial machinery,” he says. “If we can bypass that and get a really good physician back in the system, we all win.”

Adds Nicholson: “To have three new physicians who are going to serve the Somali community, with the unique insights they carry … We can be proud of that.”

For Hired, it’s the difference between being an assistant manager at a blood bank—his most recent job—and putting his medical degree to full use.

“When the University of Minnesota created this program,” he says, “it was like a dream come true.”

Tags: Academic Health Center

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Department of Family Medicine and Community Health