The ongoing COVID-19 crisis in America has been a real test of the scope and resolve of our healthcare community, with physicians, nurses and support staff stepping up in even the most dangerous circumstances to help save patients’ lives.
It has also offered a unique opportunity for physicians to do what is often a tremendously difficult proposition – that is, to practice medicine in other states, without going through the often laborious process of re-licensing for each jurisdiction.
Temporary national licensing waivers allowed thousands of doctors to travel to virus hotspots like New York City and join the fight against coronavirus, not to mention scores of other physicians volunteering their services, far away from their homes. The pandemic has also relaxed rules to let out-of-state physicians provide much-needed telehealth visits to patients across the country, while their patients may be a thousand miles away, safely sheltered at home. And considering that telehealth usage jumped as much as 4,300% at one New York hospital in a six-week period, patients definitely appreciated the extra resources.
A Massive Doctor Shortage Lies Ahead
While these waivers certainly seem like easy ways to offer Americans care in a time of extreme need, they represent quite revolutionary changes for physician licensure. In a way, COVID-19 has led the industry to adopt a practical solution to one important aspect of our looming physician shortage, a massive demographic issue in the United States. One in three American physicians is currently over the age of 65 and approaching retirement, feeding into a shortage that could grow up to 139,00 doctors by 2033, in a study done by the Association of American Medical Colleges.
As noted by Tony Stajduhar, President of Jackson Physician Search, in his paper, Five Ways to Move the Needle on the Physician Shortage, making these licensing waivers a permanent solution might be a simple way to expand opportunities for international medical graduates to more easily practice where needs exist. Often, without getting caught up in endless regulatory red tape, or the sheer cost of applying for licenses in different jurisdictions.
According to the Federation of State Medical Boards, 49 states at the time of this writing have temporarily modified their requirements for licensing, issuing waivers to allow physicians to perform in-person services or more easily obtain temporary license renewals, while 47 states have approved short-term measures allowing out-of-state physicians to perform telehealth visits.
A further 39 states have expedited licensing for inactive or retired physicians, allowing them to quickly rejoin the fight against COVID-19. Some 27 states have also modified their Continuing Medical Education requirements, allowing doctors to focus squarely on medicine, for the time being. In Arizona, for instance, a six-month deferral was issued for some medical license renewals in certain date ranges; as infection and hospitalization rates multiply there and in other states, it’s likely these waivers may be extended.
Simplifying the Path for New Doctors – and Some Bipartisan Agreement
Any movement to simplify the steps necessary for qualified doctors to more easily practice anywhere in the United States is welcome news, given other disruptions to the path for new doctors. Consider that thousands of medical students had been unable to complete the U.S. Medical Licensure Examiners’ Step 1 and Step 2 Clinical Knowledge tests since the spring, as Prometric, the testing vendor was closed due to stay-at-home rules; we’re now seeing testing events create long-awaited additional testing opportunities for examinees.
There is more good news, as well. The pandemic has also shown some inspirational moments of bipartisan cooperation in Washington D.C., as politicians recognized the immediate impact of physician shortages on care for their constituents. That’s something which might bode well for further political support of permanent licensing waivers or similar governmental efforts to address and remedy America’s long-term physician shortage.
In May, the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act was introduced by senators Todd Young (R-IN), David Perdue (R-GA), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Dick Durbin (D-IL). Recognizing that almost 25% of today’s American physician workforce are international medical school graduates, the legislation calls to repurpose some 15,000 available immigrant visas for qualifying physicians and 25,000 nurses – all in an effort to bolster healthcare resources. The senator sponsors even took the unusual step of exempting countries such as China and India from the existing per-country caps.
Working to Make It Easier to Work
These COVID-19 licensing waivers, to some extent, fast-track the work undertaken by the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, an agreement championed by the FSMB since 2013. Since officially being engaged in April 2017, the compact has allowed more than 7,400 physicians to secure more than 9,400 multi-state licenses in 29 participating states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam – with more introducing legislation.
The IMLC offered a model that emergency waivers could certainly help make permanent, providing much more flexibility to both veteran and newly graduated physicians. And while resistance to interstate licensure in the past has often focused on varying standards for education and experience, the compact ensures high standards by asking participating physicians to meet nine requirements of professionalism, in addition to holding an unrestricted license in their home state.
A time of extraordinary healthcare challenges has helped us see the immediate value of streamlining and simplifying the ability for doctors to practice where they are needed. And as the national physician shortage continues to grow, maybe this is the right time to make those waivers a permanent solution. For more information on other ways the healthcare industry will likely discuss solutions that will aid in minimizing the impact of the physician shortage, review the Jackson Physician Search paper Five Ways to Move the Needle on the Physician Shortage.
If your organization can benefit from partnering with an organization comprised of respected healthcare industry physician recruitment professionals, contact the Jackson Physician Search team today to learn how we can help keep you ahead of the recruitment curve.