Urologists, OB/GYNs, cardiologists and other doctors affiliated with Queen of the Valley Medical Center may find themselves temporarily deployed from their regular practices to help treat COVID-19 patients in Napa County — or beyond.
That news was announced in an internal memo sent on March 31 to one group of doctors who work with the Queen. That group, St. Joseph Health Medical Group, is a separate corporation, and is not a part of the hospital itself.
In addition to reassigning doctors to high-need areas, due to the impact of the virus on the greater health care system, Providence St. Joseph Health is preparing to face “devastating financial repercussions from this ordeal,” said the St. Joseph Health Medical Group memo, though it didn’t detail the possible repercussions.
Providence St. Joseph Health is the “mother” organization of both the Queen and St. Joseph Health Medical Group.
“We are hopeful that there will be state and federal government support for health care organizations, but it will be many months before we have any details about how this will play out,” the March 31 memo to St. Joseph Health Medical Group says.
Larry Coomes, CEO of the Queen, said in an email to the Register, that “preparing for and responding to a pandemic requires financial resources — to purchase additional supplies, to add capacity to hospitals to care for a potential influx of patients, to hire additional staff in the event of a surge and much more.”
The Queen is a member of the Providence St. Joseph Health, which has 51 hospitals in seven western states.
Coomes said the federal government and insurance companies are offering to alleviate some of these new expenses tied to the COVID-19 fight.
“The community can rest assured that Queen of the Valley Medical Center remains financially strong and has the resources necessary to continue to meet the needs of our community members, not only during these unprecedented times, but for years to come,” said Coomes.
The idea of deploying doctors to another work setting is quite unusual, acknowledged the March 31 memo. However, “We need to be prepared for whatever comes our way and that may include an ‘all hands on deck’ response.”
“As doctors, we have to step up and help out when there is a need,” said Dr. Abhijit Adhye, an internal medicine physician with St. Joseph Health Medical Group, in a phone interview with the Register.
St. Joseph Health Medical Group includes approximately 315 physicians in Napa, Sonoma and Humboldt counties.
In Napa, St. Joseph Health Medical Group has an estimated 40 members such as doctors who practice primary care; cardiology; gastroenterology; palliative care; hospitalist medicine; neurology; OB/GYN; ear, nose and throat care; neonatology; acute rehab; general surgery; trauma surgery and urology.
“COVID-19 has required us to rapidly change operations to continue to meet our community’s evolving healthcare needs,” Dr. Susan Gonzales, president of St. Joseph Health Medical Group Napa, said in an emailed statement to the Register.
“We’ve implemented a provider reassignment program which allows us to pivot quickly to prioritize local needs, while also ensuring our providers are compensated for their time and talent, despite a fluctuation in volumes,” she said.
Doctors won’t be forced to be deployed to new physician roles. It’s voluntary, said the March 31 memo. But those who choose to opt out completely may be placed on an unpaid leave of absence, said the memo.
“This evolution has meant a surge in work for some of our providers and a decrease for others,” said Gonzales.
Many of these kinds of doctors are already temporarily seeing far fewer patients, as most elective and non-urgent care and surgeries have been postponed or rescheduled during the coronavirus outbreak.
Gonzales was careful to note that there are no current plans to reassign/deploy any of Napa physicians at this time, so for now there is “no impact to our normal operations or patient care.”
St. Joseph Health Medical Group clinics remain open, said Gonzales.
“The program we’ve described is a proactive measure to ensure we can meet the community’s evolving needs in the event there is a surge in COVID-19 related volume,” she said in a written statement.
“This means we could potentially gain additional physicians supporting our Napa community,” she said.
This type of cross coverage is a common practice in the medical group, even outside times of crisis. There are no planned furloughs at this time, Gonzales said.
“The reassignment of individual providers who have opted into the program would only occur if a surge in COVID-19 in our community requires us to reassign providers,” she said.
The Providence St. Joseph Health system, like every other health care system in the country, should be prepared for the “drastic effects of this crisis” on productivity and revenue and that financial impact, said the March 31 memo.
According to Dr. Adhye, planning to possibly deploy doctors during an emergency is not unprecedented. A similar scenario was planned for during the recent Northern California wildfires, he noted. In that case, doctors from the Queen were prepared to help at hospitals in Sonoma County if necessary.
When asked if a possible deployment of doctors means that Napa might temporarily have fewer doctors in the area, Adhye said that is unknown.
No one knows how or where a surge of sick patients will occur. When that happens, “we will decide” who needs to go where, he said. “We just want to be ready, so we are not doing this at the last minute.”
Adhye spoke about his own feelings about his own personal safety during the pandemic.
No, he’s not sleeping in a tent in his garage like one physician at the UCI Medical Center in Irvine is reportedly doing.
“Thankfully not,” he said with a laugh. His wife lets him in the house after work, he joked. However, the first thing he does is take a shower and change clothes.
He feels safe at his work and in Napa County, “We haven’t seen a big surge of (COVID-19) patients, and we have enough personal protective equipment.”
Adhye said the other physicians in medical group have been supportive of a plan for possible deployment.
The physician had this reminder for Napans.
“Please practice social distancing,” he said. “That’s so important.”
“People can be fooled into thinking this is nothing,” said Adhye. Even though some residents are not able to work right now, “This is not like a vacation. It’s something to be taken seriously.”
Editor’s note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.
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