It’s a bleak irony of the coronavirus pandemic that some physicians are seriously underemployed even as others are stretched to their limits.
With virtually all non-urgent medical treatments on hold, many doctors are using telemedicine where they can, or shuttering entirely. Some, like Scott E. Shapiro, a Lower Gwynedd cardiologist in private practice, are joining the front lines. The work he’s now doing at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health is critical, but the pay doesn’t come close to what he was making in private practice.
“From a business standpoint, it’s going to be a disaster,” he said. “We just have to put our heads down and deal with it.”
Still, he’s grateful for the opportunity to serve, and figures other doctors would be, too. So he recently launched Helpfulpractices.com, a matchmaking website to link doctors looking for jobs with hospitals that need personnel. Shapiro, a former president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, runs a side business finding placements for doctors. But this venture was done entirely with volunteers and is free to use, he said.
“This is just a group of people concerned about their communities," he said, "concerned about health-care providers.”
This is clearly a growth industry. Hospital staffing has been a concern throughout the pandemic, said Andy Carter, CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, which also is helping hospitals find doctors. The American Medical Association has created an online guide to match doctors interested in volunteering with hospitals.
And a University of Pennsylvania student has won an international app design competition for her work with a team that designed a website to connect doctors with hospitals, and even find free rooms for health-care workers and other necessities.
“Given my skill set being technical, I felt that was a great way for me to contribute in these times of need," said Alexa Spagnola, the Penn junior who entered the NYU Abu Dhabi International Hackathon for Social Good. Spagnola and a team of seven students from around the world spent three days in April designing the site, and hope to have it running this summer. Because of the pandemic travel restrictions, they coordinated by Zoom rather than meeting in Abu Dhabi as planned.
"Even if one of us went to sleep, it was almost like the project never was asleep,” Spagnola said. “You could wake up and something was added to the work.”
Large hospital systems are less likely to face staffing shortages, said Jay Evan Rothkopf, a hospitalist and chairman of the Montgomery County Medical Society. Small hospitals, though, are vulnerable if a COVID-19 surge brings a swift influx of patients — not to mention staffers getting sick themselves.
“Sometimes in some of these small towns, they may have a single-digit number of physicians," Rothkopf said. And those doctors, he said, may not have much experience with the kind of emergency care COVID-19 patients require.
Rothkopf used Shapiro’s for-profit placement service to find shifts at area hospitals more than a decade ago, he said. The nonprofit site helped the Montgomery County society by providing a place for doctors seeking to connect with hospitals outside their local networks.
In addition to underworked physicians like himself, Shapiro anticipates the site could attract recent medical school graduates struggling with loan payments, or retired physicians who want to help.
Shapiro launched his site with volunteer help from OnCall, a physician staffing business; Curi, a physician insurance and professional association in Raleigh, N.C.; and Variable, a North Carolina web builder.
Though some medical licensing restrictions have been relaxed due to the pandemic, there may still be complications with doctors seeking work in other states. It’s up to the hospitals to vet worker qualifications and confirm they are credentialed to practice, Shapiro said.
For medical workers seeking placement, a brief questionnaire seeks information about degrees held and their specialties, whether their licenses permit them to practice out of state, and if they are willing to travel out of state for work. Hospitals simply are asked to fill out their contact information and volunteers contact them to determine their specific needs.
The volunteers then review medical workers’ information and connect them with hospitals. If the site catches on, Shapiro said, designers may seek to automate more of its services as the pandemic wears on.