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Retired? Not So Fast: Calling on Former Healthcare Workers During the Coronavirus


As the U.S. healthcare system struggles to respond to the growing number of coronavirus patients across the country, some facilities and health networks have started pulling healthcare workers out of retirement to help with this surge in demand for medical services. However, going back to work isn’t an option for many retired care providers. Some workers may be too old or frail to continue their careers in medicine, while others may be worried about spreading the virus to their loved ones – or contracting it themselves, since they are of retirement age.

If your facility is running low on staff as you try to contain the coronavirus, learn more about the complexities of bringing retired healthcare workers back into the fold and what it could mean for your patients.

Calling on Retired Healthcare Providers

Colorado is one of the many states reeling from the spread of the coronavirus. According to The Denver Post, the state currently has 183 confirmed cases with several deaths, mostly among senior citizens. Local hospitals are being overwhelmed with patients suffering from flu-like symptoms, many of which could have the virus.

Last weekend, Dr. Zwillich, a retired pulmonary critical care physician in Carbondale, CO, received a letter from his son, Todd, asking him to return to work. It read, “The state of Colorado is seeing an increasing demand for qualified health care professionals to assist in the testing, treatment, and care of patients with COVID-19.”

Dr. Zwillich recently spoke with NPR about his thoughts on returning to work. He admits he can’t do many of the things he used to do in the field, such as inserting tubes into patients’ lungs and chest, but he says he’s still able to triage patients and diagnose their symptoms. Dr. Zwillich was a critical care doctor for over 50 years before he retired.

He’s currently age 78, which means the virus could pose a major risk to his health. The coronavirus tends to be more severe in elderly patients, those with pre-existing conditions, and those with compromised immune systems. Dr. Zwillich argues that he has no underlying health conditions of which he’s aware; however, he is concerned about spreading the virus to his wife.

However, his desire to serve is stronger than his fear of getting sick. He plans on contacting the chiefs of staff at two local hospitals to see whether his services are still needed and in what capacity he could serve.

Situation Critical: All Hands on Deck

Colorado isn’t the only state calling on retired healthcare workers. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently asked retired healthcare workers and medical school personnel to act as “reserve staff” during the coronavirus outbreak.

Medical teams across the country are working around the clock to contain the virus. Many are going without breaks or working back-to-back shifts to serve their communities. However, there’s only so much that existing care providers can do to contain the epidemic. Nurses and doctors can wear themselves down as they care for one patient after another, raising their risk of infection.

Dozens of healthcare providers have been diagnosed with COVID-19, including most recently two ER doctors in New Jersey and Washington state. Dozens of health aides were also diagnosed at the Life Care nursing home just outside of Seattle.

When the virus infects healthcare providers, the results can be devastating. These workers must then self-quarantine for weeks at a time, taking valuable providers out of the healthcare system. As more workers get infected, there may not be enough providers to care for the growing number of sick patients.

Considerations to Keep in Mind Before Calling on Ex-Employees

If your facility is running low on talent, you might want to consider calling retired workers back onto the floor. Even if your facility is currently fully staffed, the virus could overwhelm your system in the coming weeks, so plan for the worst-case scenario. Create a contact list of retired professionals you could reach out to in the event of an emergency.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind before you reach out:

  • Remember that choosing to go back to work during the coronavirus pandemic can be an extremely personal decision. Avoid forcing or guilting former employees into coming out of retirement.
  • Consider the person’s age and health before asking for their help. Talk to them about the risks involved in caring for infected patients and how you plan on keeping staff safe during the epidemic. Encourage them to talk with their housemates and loved ones before agreeing to go back to work.
  • Update your contact information as you go. Some former employees may have moved since retirement. Consider housing and travel times for these individuals.
  • Be clear in terms of your needs. Talk to the individual about how much time you may need them to work and in what capacity. See if their skill set has changed since they last worked.
  • Check their licensure and/or certification to see if they are still active. If not, they should still be able to practice in emergency situations. Make sure your state accepts inactive licenses during these times and whether returning employees are subject to additional regulations.
  • If your facility has fundamentally changed since the former employee’s retirement, schedule time for onboarding so you can teach them to use the latest technology or equipment.

More facilities and states will likely call on retired healthcare workers and college faculty in the weeks ahead. Keep these tips in mind to protect former employees and make sure your patients receive quality care.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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