Mar 23, 2020 - Health

Retired doctors and nurses may be needed in a coronavirus surge

Illustration of a man in a Hawaiian shirt with a stethoscope in the chest pocket.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hospitals are asking retired doctors and nurses to come back and help with operations as they prepare for a rush of severe coronavirus cases.

The bottom line: Retired clinicians likely won't be placed in intensive care units or coronavirus testing stations, because older adults are at higher risk of falling ill and dying from the virus. But they could help stabilize hospitals that will need as many hands on deck as possible over the coming months.

Where it stands: The Association of American Medical Colleges floated this idea last week with hospitals and federal agencies.

  • "The question is: How can we bring people up to speed and bring them in?" said Janis Orlowski, a physician and executive at the AAMC. "They will ... [likely] backfill in areas where it's not direct patient care."

What they're saying: Some retired clinicians are willing to take on other necessary care, while residents and other doctors funnel into coronavirus cases.

  • Mary Kiehl, a physician who retired last September from Washington University in St. Louis, recently messaged her department chair asking if they needed any extra help. She heard back within minutes.
  • "I was shocked at how fast the response was," she said.
  • Kiehl is finishing a self-quarantine after returning from a trip in Patagonia, but she plans to help her hospital with occupational health and supervising residents by the end of this month.

By the numbers: 41% of doctors are 55 or older, according to American Medical Association data provided to Axios, and 38% of nurses are 55 or older.

Go deeper