Concerns for clinicians over 65 grow in the face of COVID-19


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.”

Dr. Peter Buerhaus, a nurse and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont.

Dr. Peter Buerhaus

“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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