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The Dangers Senior Physicians Continue to Face during COVID-19

June 29, 2020

The Dangers Senior Physicians Continue to Face during COVID-19

By Tom Florence, EVP at Merritt Hawkins

There are many unknowns about COVID-19, the virus that quickly became a global pandemic and has caused most people’s plans for 2020 to go in completely different directions. One thing that experts noticed early on, however, is that older adults and individuals with existing severe medical issues are more susceptible to contracting the disease. In fact, 8 out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been in adults who are age 65 and older.


Each day, doctors, nurses, and additional medical professionals continue to risk their own health  and lives as they serve and care for their patients. According to a study published on the preprint server MedRxiv, nearly one in three licensed physicians in the U.S. is older than 60—totaling nearly 300,000 currently licensed physicians. The highest number of physicians in this age bracket live and practice in California and New York, two of the states hit hardest with cases of coronavirus.


While most of the individuals in the U.S. in their 60s and older have been encouraged to stay home as much as possible since the onset of the coronavirus earlier this year, older healthcare providers have still been reporting to work each day. Additionally, some previously retired physicians have volunteered or been asked to return to work temporarily to help care for patients as the number of those inflicted with COVID-19 continues to rise.


Though there are a variety of safety precautions taken in the hospital setting, including personal protective equipment, healthcare professionals are certainly not immune to the harmful and contagious effects of the coronavirus. Frank Gabrin, a physician in New Jersey, was the first emergency room doctor to die from COVID-19. At 60 years old, he was in that higher-risk demographic.


Reducing Risks for Senior Physicians


Not allowing physicians older than 60 to care for patients would be a tremendous detriment to the current medical workforce, as the maximum number of healthcare professionals is needed as the pandemic continues to spread and affect the lives of millions of individuals throughout the country. However, the authors of the previously mentioned study suggested that physicians in this age bracket have limited direct contact with infected patients and more opportunities to provide telehealth services.


Aaron Kofman, M.D., and Alfonso Hernandez-Romieu, M.D., infectious disease fellows in the Department of Medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, noted that, in 2019, medical schools in the U.S. hired nearly 20,000 new faculty, most of whom are at earlier stages in their careers and who perform clinical work at affiliated hospitals. Kofman and Hernandez-Romieu suggested that older and more vulnerable physicians could lead these younger healthcare workers in virtual rounds in order to limit their contact with coronavirus patients.


Additionally, Kofman and Hernandez-Romieu posed the notion that those in emergency departments and critical care units could help train others on essential procedures (e.g., intubation and management of respiratory failure) so that their skills are still being utilized, but they are not being put in situations that place them in severe risk of contracting COVID-19.


As experts within the healthcare industry continue to learn more about the virus, including ways to prevent its onset and its spread, protecting those caring for patients—particularly those in ages nearing retirement, will continue to be a top concern.


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