Coronavirus Stories

New emergency orders issued to help understaffed Mass. hospitals 

Hospitals are also seeing many more patients than usual, mostly due to non-COVID-19-related reasons.

Medical workers treat a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester. Allison Dinner / Bloomberg News

As the COVID-19 surge rages, Gov. Charlie Baker’s office on Friday issued new emergency orders meant to help overwhelmed Massachusetts hospitals amid unprecedented staffing shortages. 

In an announcement, Baker’s office said the new measures are “intended to ensure acute hospitals can serve those in need of acute care.”

The strain of staffing shortages across the state’s healthcare system has contributed to the loss of about 700 medical, surgical, and ICU hospital beds since the beginning of 2021. The shortage comes as hospitals are seeing an uptick in patients — the majority due to non-COVID-19-related reasons, Baker’s office said.

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To help short-staffed hospitals, the Department of Public Health (DPH) issued orders to: 

  • Curtail unnecessary emergency visits for non-emergency services
  • Allow qualified physician assistants to practice independently
  • Provide greater staffing flexibility for dialysis units
  • Allow foreign-trained physicians to qualify for licensure more easily

“Our healthcare system continues to experience significant workforce and capacity constraints due to longer than average hospital stays, separate and apart from the challenges brought on by COVID,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. “Working closely with our hospital leaders, these additional actions by DPH will allow for flexibility to preserve our hospital capacity in the coming weeks.”

Breaking down the new DPH orders

Cutting down on unnecessary ER visits

Health officials said people should not seek ER care for routine healthcare needs, including COVID-19 testing and vaccination. Emergency departments statewide are experiencing critical staff shortages and long wait times for care. The order is meant to free up ERs for patients with urgent medical issues. DPH advises people to visit their primary care providers for non-urgent medical issues.

PAs can practice independently 

Physician assistants can now practice independently — without physician supervision — as long as they work in a provider setting where PAs work together with physicians. To work independently, PAs must also be qualified and practicing within their scope of practice, experience, and training.

Moonlighting for resident flexibility

Resident physicians can now practice “internal moonlighting,” which lets them provide care outside of their specialized training program. This order aims to relieve the burden on parts of the health care system with the highest staffing demands.

Expedited credentials and transfers

This order requires that DPH-licensed facilities speed up credentialing to move along staff transfers between and around hospitals in greatest need of help.

Out-of-hospital dialysis center staffing flexibilities

This order will let out-of-hospital dialysis providers, including hospitals with outpatient dialysis centers, relax staffing level requirements. The on-duty staff will be trained in dialysis care so they can meet the needs of patients.

Foreign-trained physician order

This order will enable expedited licensure of foreign-trained physicians by allowing those with at least two years of post-graduate training, but who do not have a Massachusetts limited license, to qualify for licensure. 

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