By Dr. Om Jha
Saving life is at every cost is the basic tenet that is beaten into the heads of every physician during their training. When it comes to children the stakes are much higher. I completed my Medical School and Pediatric residency, on full scholarship. When it comes to healthcare there are two India’s, one that is socialistic federally/state funded which serves the lower 70% of the population and other corporate hospitals that serve the rest. My medical and residency training happened in the ‘socialistic’ resource limited setting, so acquired a knack of putting things together to bridge unmet needs in patients care, something we colloquially call as ‘Jugaad’.
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In 2008, I moved to US for Pediatric residency at Springfield, IL. Continuing with my ‘Jugaad’ mindset I put together my first medical device in 2009, it happened during the course of routine patient care and I didn’t even acknowledge it. It was only after the nurses suggested that this contraption is a cure to a pain point they have been dealing with for a long time that I took it to the next level. The following years, I learned first-hand how to get intellectual property protection, prototyping, applying for grants, industry partnership and eventually fell prey to deceptive business practices. I took this as learning experience and my ‘real-life MBA’. Since then I have had two patents filed at US Patent and Trademark Office, more than $750,000 invested and one device currently under FDA.
When someone is developing a concept for medical device they requires significant amount of capital doing the research and development leading to a working prototype. The last 12 years of my stay in US has been on visas, J1 and H1B. The visa status has caused me heartaches at more than one occasion including but not limited to the fact that I am ineligible for federal non-dilutional funding grants (SBIR/STTR) to help with R&D and prototype development; those NIH funds are reserved for US citizens. So, my only option was equity dilution at every step, the investors I approached were wary of my immigration status and worried that I may be here today and kicked out of the country tomorrow. I had to compromise for a smaller equity stake in my own ideas, as my visa status doesn’t allow me to have ownership rights, it’s funny that a US citizen will be the majority shareholder of my idea, sounds weird but it’s true. I have done all my innovation as a side gig to my day job of being a Neonatologist. Just in the last 4 years, I’ve spent 334.5 hours or 42 weekend’s days working on my antimicrobial device cover that can decrease infection transmission in healthcare setting. I did this while working full time 70 hour weeks, being on call for 72 weekend day and creating more than 100,000 wRVU’s, amounting to $5.16 million or supporting 167 full-time US jobs based on median personal income of $31,099 (2016 US Census).
At times I did feel like giving more time to my inventions but my legal stay in US is contingent on the visa tagged to my job. Even with all these hurdles I am working every day to create a product that will be saving lives and decreasing morbidity. This product is currently being tested for its activity in killing the COVID-19 virus, this is my first product and I have a lifetime of value creation to help the US economy and save premature babies.
American Medical Association data, as of 2017, shows that there are 15,000 Indian origin physicians stuck in green Card backlog with wait time to legal permanent status of up to 52 years. These physicians are best of the best when it comes to medical knowledge and clinical skills, most of them have completed their Med school on full scholarship, a great percentage of them are fellowship-trained and the best part, for US healthcare, is that they are taking up jobs in ‘medically underserved area’ which in plain English means- they work where Americans Physicians don’t prefer to go. They work at relatively lower wages because 90% of people they serve are from lower socioeconomic status and are on Medicare. They always work more than the ‘40 hour week’ their contracts mentions, every time one of these physicians decides to renegotiate their contract the administrators use the opportunity to give them a prompt reminder that ‘You are on visa and you know nowadays how difficult it is to get the visa’, in short, you are not in a position to negotiate. Does this bother these immigrant doctors? Not at all! They show up every day putting their best foot forward even if the members of the healthcare team find every opportunity to ridicule the physician’s accent, not understanding the most important thing this physician brings to the table is what lies between his/her ears, their knowledge of saving patients life. In short, these immigrant physicians are a bunch of smart people who serve the poorest of Americans and get ridiculed for doing so. Difficult to comprehend but that’s how it is.
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These Green Card backlogged Physicians with immense entrepreneurial potential, if released of their shackles, can immensely boost US innovation and economy. But, if the US discourages these physicians who are job creators, who are driven to generate value both for themselves and the US economy then history will remember this as one of the greatest lost opportunities for the US to continue its dominance of the world economy.
About the Author: Dr. Om Jha, MD. A Fellow of American Academy of Pediatrics. He trained in India and USA, working as an Assistant professor in a USA university hospital. His day job is to save premature babies while he is passionate about designing medical devices to bridge gaps preventing delivery of appropriate care to his patients.