If you check into Largo Medical Center any time soon, there's a chance your nurse could be a former doctor. • The hospital is one of several locally that are joining with Florida International University to fund a unique program to recruit foreign doctors living in the United States and fast-track them to careers as registered nurses. • In exchange for tuition, students contract to work at their sponsoring hospital for a set period of time, usually two years. Miami-based FIU calls it the Foreign Educated Physician to Nursing Program and has placed graduates at St. Petersburg General Hospital, Edward White Hospital, Northside Hospital and Heart Institute, Largo Medical Center and other health care facilities in Pinellas County. • It's a program that meets many needs.
Foreign doctors who move to the United States can find it daunting to practice here. In some cases they need years of study to update their skills and pass numerous licensing and board exams. Many wind up working in low-paying blue-collar jobs as they try to make a life in a new country.
The program gives them an entry back into medicine. In addition, the partner hospitals pay their $11,000 tuition, and they have a guaranteed job and salary waiting for them after graduation.
Meanwhile, want ads and hospital websites are full of nursing job openings. By participating in the program, hospitals have a steady supply of applicants, many trained on-site, to fill those vacancies.
"They are truly being groomed to serve the hospital's specific needs and help relieve the nursing shortage," says Dr. Liwliwa Villagomeza, director of Florida International's Foreign Educated Physician to Nursing Program.
Students spend a year and a half going to school at night and on weekends to earn a bachelor of science degree in nursing. The normally four-year program is condensed into five semesters without a break. Classes are taught from Miami and Largo via videoconferencing, so students and teachers can interact. Practical nursing skills are taught at the sponsoring hospital on weekends.
Grecia Ibarra is one of 16 recent graduates of the program who will soon begin working as a registered nurse at Largo Medical. The 49-year-old was a hematologist in her native Venezuela and moved to the United States in 1995 with her husband and 2 ½-year-old daughter. Ibarra learned basic English as a child in school but she never learned to speak conversationally.
"I couldn't even order food in a restaurant when I first got here," she says.
Ibarra eventually went back to school and earned a master's degree in health administration. She went from being a housekeeper to working in health care management. But when she moved to Tampa in 2007, she noticed how many jobs in her field also required a nursing license. She graduated from the FIU program last week after 18 difficult months of study.
"The program is not easy, even though we are all physicians. Thinking like a nurse is difficult," says Ibarra. "It was also hard making the transition from doctor to nurse. In the beginning we felt embarrassed to say we were nurses. Then we learned nursing is a good career in this country. I'm very proud to be a nurse now. I love it."
Damir Hercinovic, 49, also had difficulty making the transition. Doctor and nurse "are two different roles. The physician makes the diagnosis and decides on treatment. The nurse's role is care of the patient. . . . It was not easy," he says.
Hercinovic was a family physician in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. He came to the United States in 1993 with his wife and young child with war refugees evacuated by the U.S. government. He settled his family in Dunedin, where they had friends, and worked at low-paying jobs until he learned to speak English. He eventually opened his own produce market, which still stands today on Patricia Avenue.
One of his customers told him about the FIU program. He graduated last week with Ibarra and will also work at Largo Medical Center for at least two years. "Medicine is my first love," says Hercinovic, now the father of three and living in Clearwater. "I hope to enter a master's program and become a nurse practitioner. They are probably going to take over primary care in this country eventually."
Of the three largest nursing programs in the bay area — the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College — none actively recruits foreign doctors. All three schools gave the same reason: no demand for such a program.
In 2002, Florida International's inaugural class had 450 applicants for just 40 slots. Since then, the program has expanded to include satellite training sites in Orlando and Largo and has added more than 470 new registered nurses to the nursing ranks. Monthly informational sessions attract more than 100 potential students.
Most feel the same as Radostina Pavlova, a 42-year-old former pediatrician from Bulgaria. It would have taken too much time and money to become licensed to practice medicine in the United States. She went through the FIU foreign doctors program, graduated in 2008, and is now a nursing supervisor at the Pinellas County Health Department's Pinellas Park Health Center.
She says she is grateful for the opportunity ". . . to get back into the field and change your life. For three years I cleaned hotel rooms in St. Pete Beach. Now I have a very good job."
Irene Maher can be reached at email@example.com.