Since the onset of the pandemic, the nation’s healthcare system has struggled to keep up with high demand for emergency care, vaccines, and COVID-19 testing. More than two years on, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are confronting what some call the fifth wave of the virus, with many leaving or poised to leave the profession—even as the economy faces unprecedented shortages of workers in heath care and other fields. These developments and the intense pressures they impose on health systems are occurring alongside long-standing mismatches in the supply and demand for health-care professionals and significant demographic shifts that predate the pandemic.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has been tracking these developments with an eye toward engaging the 270,000 underemployed immigrant healthcare professionals in the United States who have been on the sidelines of the nation’s public-health emergency. Building on that national work, MPI has been exploring the extent and nature of “brain waste” or skill underutilization among highly skilled immigrant health-care professionals in Illinois, a state with the sixth largest immigrant population in the country and one that boasts a long history of immigration and innovative immigrant integration efforts. This issue brief draws on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data and on interviews with national, Illinois, and Chicago representatives of health professional organizations, experts in workforce development, immigrant advocacy groups, and educational leaders.

The authors find that Illinois presents a paradox. While on the one hand, immigrants play a vital role at all levels in the state’s health-care workforce, MPI estimates that 12,000 immigrants with health or medical degrees remain underemployed or out of work. Half of these underemployed immigrants live in Cook County. This underemployment, even at a time of high demand, exemplifies the brain waste phenomenon.

Read the full article about immigrant health care workers by Jeanne Batalova and Michael Fix at Migration Policy Institute.