Retired medics want to be part of an ongoing “ready reserve force” to help fill gaps in medical care during natural disasters, state emergencies and pandemics like COVID-19.
- For COVID, a temporary pandemic response sub-register has been put in place, allowing healthcare professionals who have retired in the past three years to register
- But in April 2021, the scope of their practice was changed for the deployment of COVID-19 vaccination
- Under pressure, AHPRA expanded the number of people who could join, allowing more than 26,000 health workers to sign up
Geoffrey Hawson, Associate Professor at AMA Queensland, is a medical oncologist, hematologist and palliative care physician who has helped save lives at five major Queensland hospitals.
The 75-year-old, who retired three years ago, said, like so many other doctors, that he was now ready to step in and help “give back to the community”.
“It’s hard to turn your back on it. If you retire at 65 or 70, you probably have 45 years of medical experience and expertise which basically comes together overnight,” Dr Hawson said. .
Retired Doctors Could Be “Emergency Prepared”
“Once you retire and are no longer registered, you can no longer use your skills or knowledge that you have used clinically and not clinically, and this includes research policy development, education and teaching, ”Dr. Hawson said.
“So that probably rules out anything.
“What we need is a coordinated system to deploy a ‘standby’ force of medics in times of need, such as this pandemic, future pandemics and natural disasters.
“So instead of just falling off the cliff when they retire, they’re effectively put into a more limited category.
“And by doing continuing professional development (CPD) and training, they would be prepared to deal with any major emergency.
“In Brisbane’s last lockdown, there were around 400 health workers disabled because they had to self-isolate.
“It’s time to call on the medical expertise of retired physicians to deal with situations like this.”
When COVID-19 hit, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) set up a temporary pandemic response sub-registry, allowing healthcare professionals who had retired within the previous three years, to register.
But in April 2021, the scope of their practice was changed to “deployment of COVID-19 vaccination” and it was extended until April 2022.
“Retired physicians are capable of more than just helping with immunizations,” said Dr. Hawson.
“A doctor in a remote area was able to help his wife who had been practicing for 12 months while there was an excess workload.
“But all of a sudden he found himself this year unable to help unless he got vaccines.
“Some general practitioners would like this help with vaccination, but others would prefer help with their respiratory clinics, for example.”
Dr Hawson said WADA was urging a new registration category for senior physicians that would allow them to help support a “tight” medical workforce in times of crisis.
Dr Hawson also said the return of retired doctors to the workforce to help is already underway in Britain and Canada.
Medical strike force for emergencies
71-year-old semi-retired ophthalmologist Dr Darryl Gregor (OAM) said he was nine months old when the pandemic started, but missed work and people.
A cataract and refraction surgeon, he picked up the tools with a half-day clinic once a week, working as a medical ophthalmologist, rather than a surgeon.
He too wanted to join a “medical strike force” for emergencies and wouldn’t expect to be paid.
“Heaven knows what’s going to happen over the next few years with the medical staff,” said Dr Gregor.
“We got a taste of it with the coronavirus, but you just don’t know what lies ahead.
“If done right I think it might be a fun thing to be a part of and I think the past is probably not as important as the future.
“I think the way we run a sub-register in the future is continuing education so that you have a group of doctors and specialists ready for active duty, provided, of course, that they are physically and mentally competent. “
He said the AHPRA had done a “great job” in regulating the 800,000 registered health practitioners in the country.
“But like all government departments, they looked at the world through a lens and that lens is the norm.”
“But there is another goal and it’s called the medical workforce.
“I think they were very focused on patient safety and the coronavirus caught them off guard somewhat.”
“It’s hard to defend yourself from sending doctors to the scrapyard when you are effectively short of doctors.”
Some states expand their “influx of health workers”
This week, the AHPRA bowed to pressure from COVID-riddled ACT, NSW and Victoria and WADA and expanded the number of people who could join the ‘healthcare workforce emergency ”.
It would now allow more than 26,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and health workers to register for a period of twelve months until April 2022.
He said the decision was made due to a “significant change” in needs due to the pandemic.
It also changed the work retired healthcare professionals could do, from simple “rollout of COVID-19 vaccination” to “practice for COVID-19 response” in general.
However, the sub-register was closed to other professions from April 2021, including psychology, physiotherapy and diagnostic radiography.
Those who have not applied for continuous registration cannot practice and healthcare professionals also have the option of opting out.
CEO Martin Fletcher said the expansion of the program would allow healthcare workers to help in clinical and non-clinical roles directly related to the COVID-19 response.
The increase in staff could fill positions
He said the “surge workforce” could temporarily fill positions due to outbreak management or the dismissal of other health workers during the crisis.
“We are also looking at other ways to support the Australian healthcare system in managing the effects of COVID-19, which may include adding an additional group of eligible practitioners from a range of professions to the sub- register to provide more health workers. “
“The pandemic response sub-registry practitioners are needed more now than at any time,” Fletcher said.
While WADA welcomed the move, it argues that it needs to go further rather than ending in April of next year.
He wants a continued “ready force” and argues that an insurance plan should be put in place by state or federal governments to cover their volunteer work.
“My plea would be to look to the future,” said Dr Lawson.
He was also concerned that doctors would be struck off the register because of its limitations.
“Some of them were notified when they wanted to get involved to join the Care Army instead. It sounds pretty silly,” he said.
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