The Oneida County phone book lists local doctors from Abbasi to Zaffino with names covering a wide range of ethnicities in between.
The list of recent hires at St. Elizabeth Medical Center reads like a United Nations of physicians. The hospital and its family medicine residency program actively recruit diverse doctors who speak a variety of languages.
“We try to recruit to fill the cultural needs for the patients we see,” said Dr. Mark Warfel, medical director of the St. Elizabeth Medical Group.
Over the years, the hospital has brought in doctors with ties to a wide variety of places: Russia, Bosnia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Ethiopia, for example. Many residents end up practicing here after graduation.
Some of these doctors are second generation Americans. Some are naturalized citizens. And some are foreign doctors here on visas or green cards.
In fact, at 43 percent, the six-county Mohawk Valley has the highest percentage of doctors who attended medical school overseas of any region in the state, according to 2009 data from the Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University at Albany. And New York has the second highest percentage of international medical graduates – 35 percent -- among the states.
Not all of these doctors are foreign. Across the state, almost a third of them are Americans who go abroad for medical school, according to the center.
What brings all these doctors to the Mohawk Valley? The biggest factor probably comes down to immigration issues.
“The people that tend to go into the rural part of the state are typically people looking for visas,” said Sherry Chorost, director of workforce studies for the Healthcare Association of New York State.
Most foreign-born medical residents have to leave after they finish their residencies unless they get visa waivers that allow them to stay if they work in medically undeserved areas.
American doctors, on the other hand, are often reluctant to face the snow, limited job prospects for spouses and relative isolation of the Mohawk Valley unless they have ties to the area.
But changes in this country’s medical education system could threaten the supply of foreign doctors unless Congress addresses the situation, Chorost warned.
Legislation pending in Washington would increase the number of Medicare-funded residency slots by 15,000 over the course of five years.
Recruitment of diverse doctors brings some here, of course. And the diverse population of Oneida County may attract others.
Dr. Minnie Cruz-Tolentino, a Philippine-born American, likes the idea of raising her two daughters in an area with a large Filipino community.
Cruz-Tolentino started working in mid-September at the Barneveld office of Adirondack Community Physicians where she hopes to convince her patients to take up healthy lifestyles. “It’s a challenge for me to get them to take their medications. It’s a challenge for me to keep educating them,” she said.
Page 2 of 2 - After moving to Connecticut at age 8, Cruz-Tolentino returned to the lower tuition of her native country for college and medical school, returning to this country for a family medicine residency at St. Elizabeth Medical Center. After her residency, she moved to rural Maine, but returned to Oneida County when her husband, Dr. Martin Tolentino, who is Filipino, started his own residency at St. Elizabeth.
She hopes to stay here, though, even after his residency ends. The woman who once thought New York just meant the city and who was dumbfounded by all the trees and snow said she’s come to appreciate the nice people, laidback lifestyle and light traffic in the Utica area. “My GPS says 10 minutes, I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.
And unlike rural Maine, Utica has a mall, she said.