Dr. E. Hanh Le, Senior Director of Medical Affairs at Healthline Media, is no stranger to health emergencies. Now, she shares what motivates her to look for opportunities to volunteer during the COVID-19 pandemic and describes the roadblocks that she faces.
Many of us likely recall Norman Rockwell’s image of a doctor. He was much loved; and assuredly, when he retired in his later years, he was missed by the community.
Fast-forward to the last few decades, and you might be surprised to find that many retired physicians actually left clinical medicine when they were in their 40s or 30s, if not mid-20s — the prime years for productive clinical practice.
Many left because they were lured away by careers in teaching or technology, but fundamentally, many left because they were frustrated and burnt out by the state of healthcare today, leaving behind years of sought-after, hard-won education and training.
So what do we do now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there is a large army of physicians who could return to active duty and serve in clinical medicine?
Relieving colleagues on the front lines
As a Family Medicine physician, I remember being on duty in Houston, carrying patients from floor to floor in the stairwell when Tropical Storm Allison struck, wiping out the power in an entire section of our hospital.
I remember the all-hands-on-deck call to the hospital after 9/11, as we all watched for further terrorist attacks and potential casualties.
So, when COVID-19 took the world by storm in early 2020, I knew that it would not be long before there would be a need for physicians like myself to come out of early retirement and take up arms on the front lines, to relieve our colleagues who had been fighting the hard fight from the beginning.
I proactively searched for opportunities to volunteer, as I wasn’t looking for a second paying job. To my dismay, I found that is surprisingly difficult for able-bodied physicians like myself to return to clinical practice as volunteers.
For starters, though I’m board-certified and have an active medical license, I do not carry my own malpractice insurance, so it is unclear who would cover me, should there be any negative patient outcome during my delivery of care and should the patient wish to pursue legal recourse.
Also, while it is well-known that there is a military reserve for most of our armed forces, most physicians do not know that there are medical reserve corps throughout the country that enlist volunteer medical and nonmedical personnel to assist in the case of emergencies. Some local areas even have more than one corps unit. Not once had I heard about this until I went looking for it, to find my local unit.
As we have seen in the national news over the past week, in New York City there are little to no coordinated efforts that would allow us, as a nation, to mobilize a large medical workforce to the front lines.
So, physicians like myself have been emailing our clinical colleagues and contacts to see how we can help.
But the most heartbreaking and frustrating roadblock boils down to what we would see and experience if we were called to the front lines.
Why can’t we do better?
Numerous clinicians have reported that they have limited or no personal protective equipment and have received contradictory, haphazard communications from their administrative staff, leaving them feeling like there are no clear protocols to protect them and their patients.
Many of our clinical colleagues who have been serving on the front lines aren’t sure what is on the other side, should they survive this pandemic, so there is concern about what would happen if retired physicians, many of whom have not been in clinical practice for years, join the ranks.
What systems are in place to support us and ensure our success in caring for our patients? Unfortunately, many clinicians still remember Jon Stewart’s impassioned plea to Congress to provide 9/11 first responders with a fund to pay for the healthcare that they needed subsequent to the service that they provided.
Many clinicians are left wondering what will become of us after this pandemic is over. What happens to our families if we die or are incapacitated and unable to work in the future? Many of us are the primary (if not sole) financial providers for our families.
Luckily, the American Medical Association have published recommendations for retired physicians who wish to return to clinical practice and outlined guidance about delivering care via telemedicine or in person.
But ultimately, it still rests on the individual clinicians to seek out opportunities to volunteer, and it’s not easy.
None of this erodes my desire to fulfill my duties as a physician. I have felt and will likely always feel the moral commitment to provide care to all those who need it, regardless of the risks to myself, because it was the oath that I took when I became a doctor.
The situation does give me pause and make me wonder: Why can’t we do better? Why can’t we do better for our doctors and other healthcare workers? And by doing better for our doctors, aren’t we doing better for our patients? Who is going to take care of the countless patients who need us?
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