Cuban doctors work to reach their dreams through Hershey Medical Center program

April 25, 2018 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

By Diego Sandino

Participants use a heart monitor and mannequin to perform cardiology lab.

Participants of the International Medical Graduate Program work together on a cardiology lab exercise.

When Dr. Lidys Rivera Galvis arrived in the United States, one of her main goals was to take her licensing exam and then apply for residency to work as a doctor as she did in her native Colombia. What she didn’t know, however, was that achieving these goals would be a long and complex process — especially when one doesn’t know the language and has few economic resources or connections.

But with the help of Dr. Patricia Silveyra, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, Dr. Daniel Weber, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist from Lancaster, Pa., and other community members, Rivera Galvis has successfully navigated her way through the system. She is currently serving as a fellow in Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Simulation Education and Research Fellowship program and conducting her fellow project, an international medical graduate (IMG) program.

In January 2018, nine Cuban physicians began meeting at the Simulation Center once a week for four hours and learning from Rivera Galvis and Penn State College of Medicine faculty and students. After completing the yearlong program, these immigrant physicians will be better prepared to the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Step 1 of the exam assesses their knowledge and application of scientific concepts that are basic to practicing medicine.

The IMG program also helps Latin American physicians assimilate into the U.S. health care system. Since 2013, more than 240 Cuban health care professionals, nearly all of them doctors, have left their country to move to Lancaster County. Due to a lack of resources and guidance, Rivera Galvis says that many of these doctors find themselves in low-skill jobs — losing motivation and the hope of working in health care ever again.

Preparing Cuban doctors to practice in the U.S. - Penn State Health

“Like me, I see these doctors who don’t know what problems to solve, what books to get or how to advance their careers in the U.S.,” Rivera Galvis said. “This program gives me the opportunity to share my experience and help others reach a medical residency, which is a dream that we have in common.”

As she was studying for Step 2 of the licensing exam, Rivera Galvis learned about the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Simulation Center. She then discovered the fellowship and applied in hopes of learning more about simulation-based education and improving her teaching abilities. She developed the IMG program in collaboration with Weber, who created a similar program in Lancaster, and the simulation lab director David Rodgers.

This program is a blessing, said one physician participant, Lisvan Carrero Fernandez, because it offers him the opportunity to meet other people who are in the same situation and striving for the same outcome. “We have a lot of this knowledge but just in another language,” said Fernandez. “This program gives us the connection and organization to stay on track to take these exams.”

The Cuban physicians who participate in the IMG program are well trained and have practiced medicine in other countries such as Ghana, Haiti, Venezuela and Brazil, but they were not taught medicine in the same way as U.S. medical students, explained Jesus Rodriguez, another physician participant.

“In Cuba, we are clinically oriented mostly because of our country’s lack of technology,” he said. “[In the U.S.] we are going more in-depth in the physiology to see how something happens in the body.”

The IMG program is also valuable for the College of Medicine students who serve as teachers. It gives them an opportunity to review material for their own exams, while learning about the Latino culture, how Latin American countries teach medicine and what challenges immigrant doctors face in trying to join the medical workforce in America, according to Rivera Galvis.

David Velez, a first-year medical student, explained that most of the Cuban physicians need extra training in biochemistry and how it manifests in diseases because they learned it so long ago. “We medical students have been learning biochemical mechanisms since the beginning of our studies, so it’s a pleasure to share our knowledge with the Cuban doctors.”

The medical students give lectures based on what they are currently learning in class. Because they have been prepped on the material in Step 1 of the licensing exam, they can also give the physicians an idea of what it covers.

The process of becoming a licensed doctor in the U.S. is time-consuming, Rodriguez and Fernandez note, as it took Rodriguez two years to get his paperwork from Cuba to submit to the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, while Carrero Flez is still waiting for his.

“We have no clue what to do, and we quickly realize how everything here is so different from the rest of the world,” Rodriguez said. “But this program is lifting up our souls by just coming to the hospital. We may not be able to work as a physician right now, but being in the hospital and seeing other people in the same field that you love gives us hope.”

Rivera Galvis’ ultimate goal is to help the local Latino community by providing Spanish-speaking doctors who can give them care.

“This program will produce physicians who look like our ever-changing population in the U.S.,’’ Velez said. “The Cuban physicians know how to work with patients who are living in poverty or the middle class and their health problems. They will be an asset to our communities in Lancaster and Harrisburg.”

With the final class scheduled for December, most of the Cuban physicians plan to take Step 1 of the licensing exam then as well. Ultimately, they aim to take the next sections of the exam, which test clinical sciences and basic patient-centered skills, then apply for residencies and work as doctors.

“I want to be a physician again and do what physicians do – help people,” Rodriguez said. “We are very thankful for everything these medical students, doctors, Lidys and the Medical Center itself is doing to help us reach our dreams again.”

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