To fight COVID-19 surge, California Health Corps recruits retired, international doctors

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As COVID-19 cases increase, so will the need for medical professionals. Photo credit: Pxhere.

Governor Gavin Newsom rolled out a new program called the California Health Corps this week. Its goal is to increase the number of medical professionals across the state by 37,000, in preparation for a surge in COVID-19 patients. 

On the first day, 25,000 licensed health professionals signed up for the program. It’s a relief to medical professionals like Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis. On today’s Daily Dose, he explains where the additional workers are coming from, and challenges hospitals might face when deciding who to recruit. 

Over the last four days, about 2,000 new patients have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 in California. One third have been placed in intensive care units. 

Wilkes says that as the numbers of confirmed cases increase, the need for doctors and other health care workers will also increase. Some recruitment has been mitigated by pulling employees from other parts of hospitals, but it won’t be enough to fill all needs.

Benefits of coming out of retirement 

A primary focus of the program are medical professionals at the beginning or end of their careers, such as medical students at the end of their schooling or recently retired doctors and nurses. 

In conversations with retired physicians, Wilkes has reminded them of the benefits of returning to medical duty:

Wilkes: “[I’ve tried] to convince them that this kind of work will connect them with other people. It will help them build self-confidence. It will help them keep sort of medically fit. It will perhaps help them with the effects of stress and depression. … It will also help them forget some of the things that they're suffering with, maybe loneliness.”

Is task shifting a good idea? 

California is also considering what’s called task shifting, or widening the scope of what certain medical professionals do, such as nurse practitioners and EMTs. Often used in remote areas in Africa and Asia, task shifting helps train individuals to perform specialized and high functioning tasks without official training.

But Wilkes hesitates to endorse the practice:

“I think it's a little bit dangerous. I'm not sure I would broaden the scope of practice. The last thing I think a very sick person needs is a provider who's not adequately trained. ... There are lots of things that nurse practitioners and EMTs can do as a part of this epidemic, but let's not have them doing things that they're not trained to do.“

What about medical professionals who were trained and licensed overseas? 

In the U.S., about 25% of doctors currently practicing were trained internationally, Wilkes says. But there’s an untapped source of medical professionals trained outside of the country who are not part of the current health care workforce. He estimates there are a million doctors, nurses and dentists who fall under this category. 

Wilkes uses a group of Afghan and Iraqi immigrants he works with in northern California as an example. After their work with American special forces, they were granted visas to come to the U.S. Before moving overseas, they were physicians or nurses.

“This is an opportunity to reach out to many of these men and women who are adequately trained and allow them to serve here. We call this pragmatic flexibility. It's allowing them to do things that they were trained to do, under supervision, so that they can help in these times of trouble.”