Concerns for Clinicians Over 65 Grow in the Face of COVID-19

Alicia Gallegos

April 09, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

When Judith Salerno, MD, heard that New York was calling for volunteer clinicians to assist with the COVID-19 response, she didn't hesitant to sign up.

Although Dr. Salerno, 68, has held administrative, research, and policy roles for 25 years, she has kept her medical license active and always found ways to squeeze some clinical work into her busy schedule.

"I have what I could consider 'rusty' clinical skills, but pretty good clinical judgment," said Dr. Salerno, president of the New York Academy of Medicine. "I thought in this situation that I could resurrect and hone those skills, even if it was just taking care of routine patients and working on a team, there was a lot of good I can do."

Dr. Salerno is among 80,000 health care professionals who have volunteered to work temporarily in New York during the COVID-19 pandemic as of March 31, 2020, according to New York state officials. In mid-March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) issued a plea for retired physicians and nurses to help the state by signing up for on-call work. Other states have made similar appeals for retired health care professionals to return to medicine in an effort to relieve overwhelmed hospital staffs and aid capacity if health care workers become ill. Such redeployments, however, are raising concerns about exposing senior physicians to a virus that causes more severe illness in individuals aged over 65 years and kills them at a higher rate.

At the same time, a significant portion of the current health care workforce is aged 55 years and older, placing them at higher risk for serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, said Douglas O. Staiger, PhD, a researcher and economics professor at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. Dr. Staiger recently coauthored a viewpoint in JAMA called "Older clinicians and the surge in novel coronavirus disease 2019," which outlines the risks and mortality rates from the novel coronavirus among patients aged 55 years and older.

Among the 1.2 million practicing physicians in the United States, about 20% are aged 55-64 years and an estimated 9% are 65 years or older, according to the paper. Of the nation's nearly 2 million registered nurses employed in hospitals, about 19% are aged 55-64 years, and an estimated 3% are aged 65 years or older.

"In some metro areas, this proportion is even higher," Dr. Staiger said in an interview. "Hospitals and other health care providers should consider ways of utilizing older clinicians' skills and experience in a way that minimizes their risk of exposure to COVID-19, such as transferring them from jobs interacting with patients to more supervisory, administrative, or telehealth roles. This is increasingly important as retired physicians and nurses are being asked to return to the workforce."

Protecting Staff, Screening Volunteers

Hematologist-oncologist David H. Henry, MD, said his eight-physician group practice at Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, has already taken steps to protect him from COVID exposure.

At the request of his younger colleagues, Dr. Henry, 69, said he is no longer seeing patients in the hospital where there is increased exposure risk to the virus. He and the staff also limit their time in the office to 2-3 days a week and practice telemedicine the rest of the week, Dr. Henry said in an interview.

"Whether you're a person trying to stay at home because you're quote 'nonessential,' or you're a health care worker and you have to keep seeing patients to some extent, the less we're face to face with others the better," said Dr. Henry, who hosts the Blood & Cancer podcast for MDedge News. "There's an extreme and a middle ground. If they told me just to stay home that wouldn't help anybody. If they said, 'business as usual,' that would be wrong. This is a middle strategy, which is reasonable, rational, and will help dial this dangerous time down as fast as possible."

On a recent weekend when Dr. Henry would normally have been on call in the hospital, he took phone calls for his colleagues at home while they saw patients in the hospital. This included calls with patients who had questions and consultation calls with other physicians.

"They are helping me and I am helping them," Dr. Henry said. "Taking those calls makes it easier for my partners to see all those patients. We all want to help and be there, within reason. You want to step up an do your job, but you want to be safe."

Peter D. Quinn, DMD, MD, chief executive physician of the Penn Medicine Medical Group, said safeguarding the health of its workforce is a top priority as Penn Medicine works to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This includes ensuring that all employees adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Penn Medicine infection prevention guidance as they continue their normal clinical work," Dr. Quinn said in an interview. "Though age alone is not a criterion to remove frontline staff from direct clinical care during the COVID-19 outbreak, certain conditions such as cardiac or lung disease may be, and clinicians who have concerns are urged to speak with their leadership about options to fill clinical or support roles remotely."

Meanwhile, for states calling on retired health professionals to assist during the pandemic, thorough screenings that identify high-risk volunteers are essential to protect vulnerable clinicians, said Nathaniel Hibbs, DO, president of the Colorado chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

After Colorado issued a statewide request for retired clinicians to help, Dr. Hibbs became concerned that the state's website initially included only a basic set of questions for interested volunteers.

"It didn't have screening questions for prior health problems, comorbidities, or things like high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease – the high-risk factors that we associate with bad outcomes if people get infected with COVID," Dr. Hibbs said in an interview.

To address this, Dr. Hibbs and associates recently provided recommendations to the state about its screening process that advised collecting more health information from volunteers and considering lower-risk assignments for high-risk individuals. State officials indicated they would strongly consider the recommendations, Dr. Hibbs said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment did not respond to messages seeking comment. Officials at the New York State Department of Health declined to be interviewed for this article but confirmed that they are reviewing the age and background of all volunteers, and individual hospitals will also review each volunteer to find suitable jobs.

The American Medical Association on March 30 issued guidance for retired physicians about rejoining the workforce to help with the COVID response. The guidance outlines license considerations, contribution options, professional liability considerations, and questions to ask volunteer coordinators.

"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many physicians over the age of 65 will provide care to patients," AMA President Patrice A. Harris, MD, said in a statement. "Whether 'senior' physicians should be on the front line of patient care at this time is a complex issue that must balance several factors against the benefit these physicians can provide. As with all people in high-risk age groups, careful consideration must be given to the health and safety of retired physicians and their immediate family members, especially those with chronic medical conditions."

Tapping Talent, Sharing Knowledge

When Barbara L. Schuster, MD, 69, filled out paperwork to join the Georgia Medical Reserve Corps, she answered a range of questions, including inquiries about her age, specialty, licensing, and whether she had any major medical conditions.

"They sent out instructions that said, if you are over the age of 60, we really don't want you to be doing inpatient or ambulatory with active patients," said Dr. Schuster, a retired medical school dean in the Athens, Ga., area. "Unless they get to a point where it's going to be you or nobody, I think that they try to protect us for both our sake and also theirs."

Dr. Schuster opted for telehealth or administrative duties, but has not yet been called upon to help. The Athens area has not seen high numbers of COVID-19 patients, compared with other parts of the country, and there have not been many volunteer opportunities for physicians thus far, she said. In the meantime, Dr. Schuster has found other ways to give her time, such as answering questions from community members on both COVID-19 and non–COVID-19 topics, and offering guidance to medical students.

"I've spent an increasing number of hours on Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime meeting with them to talk about various issues," Dr. Schuster said.

As hospitals and organizations ramp up pandemic preparation, now is the time to consider roles for older clinicians and how they can best contribute, said Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN, a nurse and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Montana State University, Bozeman, Mont. Dr. Buerhaus was the first author of the recent JAMA viewpoint "Older clinicians and the surge in novel coronavirus 2019."

"It's important for hospitals that are anticipating a surge of critically ill patients to assess their workforce's capability, including the proportion of older clinicians," he said. "Is there something organizations can do differently to lessen older physicians' and nurses' direct patient contact and reduce their risk of infection?"

Dr. Buerhaus' JAMA piece offers a range of ideas and assignments for older clinicians during the pandemic, including consulting with younger staff, advising on resources, assisting with clinical and organizational problem solving, aiding clinicians and managers with challenging decisions, consulting with patient families, advising managers and executives, being public spokespersons, and working with public and community health organizations.

"Older clinicians are at increased risk of becoming seriously ill if infected, but yet they're also the ones who perhaps some of the best minds and experiences to help organizations combat the pandemic," Dr. Buerhaus said. "These clinicians have great backgrounds and skills and 20, 30, 40 years of experience to draw on, including dealing with prior medical emergencies. I would hope that organizations, if they can, use the time before becoming a hotspot as an opportunity where the younger workforce could be teamed up with some of the older clinicians and learn as much as possible. It's a great opportunity to share this wealth of knowledge with the workforce that will carry on after the pandemic."

Since responding to New York's call for volunteers, Dr. Salerno has been assigned to a palliative care inpatient team at a Manhattan hospital where she is working with large numbers of ICU patients and their families.

"My experience as a geriatrician helps me in talking with anxious and concerned families, especially when they are unable to see or communicate with their critically ill loved ones," she said.

Before she was assigned the post, Dr. Salerno said she heard concerns from her adult children, who would prefer their mom take on a volunteer telehealth role. At the time, Dr. Salerno said she was not opposed to a telehealth assignment, but stressed to her family that she would go where she was needed.

"I'm healthy enough to run an organization, work long hours, long weeks; I have the stamina. The only thing working against me is age," she said. "To say I'm not concerned is not honest. Of course I'm concerned. Am I afraid? No. I'm hoping that we can all be kept safe."

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