Answering the call: Austin doctors step up to volunteer at field hospital for COVID patients if needed
When Dr. Tina Philip opened her family medicine practice in Round Rock in early March, she didn't know that a shelter-in-place order would prevent most patients from visiting her new office, or that she would attend the majority of her appointments virtually.
"I'm in a really unique situation," she told Austonia.
While managing the demands of her budding practice, Dr. Philip also sought out volunteer opportunities to help with the local COVID-19 pandemic response.
Dr. Tina Philip
She registered with the Texas Disaster Volunteer Registry, a database maintained by the Department of State Health Services, and responded to a call for volunteers from the Travis County Medical Society, which is working to recruit physicians for a field hospital at the Austin Convention Center.
"Family medicine is one of those things that I think is really unique in that we really get trained to see and do everything," she said. "So it's a specialty that's perfect for things like that."
Dr. Philip has previous experience with disaster response, having volunteered in the wake of both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Katrina. "Obviously, it's a little bit scarier in this situation than those ones were," she said, not least because she still has her own patients and livelihood to look after.
But Dr. Philip's prepared to take on the additional workload—and believes others are, too. "In general, most physicians, I think, really do want to help," she said. "It's just one of those things that kind of goes with the job."
In search of staff
Dr. Philip joins 181 other area physicians who responded to a request for volunteers issued by the Travis County Medical Society. While ready to work at the convention center, they're on standby status for now.
Local officials delayed the July 21 opening of a 1,500-bed field hospital at the convention center after months of preparation, citing staffing concerns at area hospitals.
"Hospitals have the space, they have the stuff, they need the staff, so it makes sense for us to prioritize that they have the staff they need … before we start moving patients to the alternate care site," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said at a press conference on Wednesday.
As a result, hospitals and local officials are requesting additional staffing support from the federal government, other states and area staffing agencies.
The first priority is finding staff to support frontline healthcare workers at area hospitals, who are overworked and reporting higher rates of absenteeism, as many recover from COVID-19 themselves or care for family members who have been infected.
But if hospitals reach capacity, the convention center will need staff to care for noncritical spillover patients.
TCMS President Dr. John Abikhaled said the request for volunteers received a "strong and supportive response" in an email to Austonia.
While some respondents are retired, most are actively practicing and willing to work shifts on nights and weekends. Specialties include surgery, pediatrics and emergency medicine.
Because Dr. Philip works five days a week at her practice in Round Rock, she would likely only be able to volunteer at the convention center on weekends. "It'd be a lot of work," she said. "[But] if we can even contribute one shift, one shift is still something."
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