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A Practical Approach to the Coronavirus Physician Shortage from Italy

March 20, 2020

March 20, 2020
By Naomi Lopez

Every day, thousands of new COVID-19 cases are being confirmed in Italy. Sadly, more than 3,000 people have died there, and the number of confirmed cases now exceeds 40,000. Italy’s national health service, Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, does not have enough physicians for the current and still growing caseload of patients needing care and hospitalization.

In response, Italy is taking bold action to meet these growing needs. The Italian government is allowing medical students in their final year of medical school to graduate early and waiving their exams, allowing them to begin to practice several months early. This will bring about 10,000 new physicians into the healthcare system to meet the demand of the overwhelmed medical system. By sending these physicians to work in general practice and senior care facilities, where health needs are usually routine, the more experienced doctors can be freed up to care for more complex medical cases including those patients who require hospital care.

While these newly minted doctors in Italy might not yet be educated and trained to perform surgery or create oncology treatment plans for cancer patients, allowing them to practice at the top of their education and training is a commonsense solution, especially in this time of crisis.

Fortunately, we are now seeing some states across the U.S. adopt policies that recognize that medical professionals who live across a state border are capable of providing care in one’s own state, too.

Last year, Arizona became the first state in the nation to enact legislation that allows new residents who are licensed elsewhere to obtain licenses in their new home state. While this applies to a wide variety of occupations, it includes healthcare professionals like nurses, nurse anesthetists, and pharmacists. Building on the Arizona approach and in response to our current crisis, the governors of Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas, and Washington are now easing their own licensing restrictions in order to allow healthcare professionals from elsewhere to practice in their states.

But this isn’t good policy only in times in crisis. Allowing providers to practice at the top of their education and training can both increase access to needed healthcare services in a timely manner, it can also reduce the cost of healthcare services.

For example, pharmacists are not allowed to administer strep and flu tests, prescriptions for positive strep and flu, and vaccinations in some states even though they are well qualified to undertake this task with minimal risks to the patient. When a patient is required to visit the physician’s office, they must often make an appointment, pay for the office visit, and pay for the vaccine. In some states, a patient can drop in to their pharmacy and obtain the needed vaccine in a matter of minutes—often at a fraction of the cost (that is paid the patient, their insurance plan, or the government program in which they are enrolled). And pharmacists want to help and are asking lawmakers to make this possible.

There won’t be an easy answer to addressing all of the unmet healthcare workforce needs that either existed before the crisis or arise as a result of it, but there are some commonsense approaches that can promote healthcare access and affordability. Removing restrictions on our highly educated and trained healthcare professionals is a great place to start.

Naomi Lopez is the Director of Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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