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N95 mask and stethoscope. (Photo provided)

Goal to bring more physicians, nurses to care for patients amid growing virus outbreak

Gov. Tony Evers on Friday issued an executive order designed to encourage retired nurses to return to their profession, allow hospitals to reassign physician assistants to departments in greatest need, and allow nursing students to begin caring for patients prior to passing the state board.

The move is designed to increase the work force of healthcare workers amid the growing battle against COVID-19 that has claimed 13 lives in Wisconsin and infected 842 others, according to the state Department of Health Services.

“Our healthcare professionals are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, and it is critical that we maximize the size of our workforce and eliminate unnecessary barriers so we can effectively meet the demand for care,” said Evers in a statement. “Remember, while our health systems respond to COVID-19, they also must continue to care for patients with other conditions and issues, such as cancer or accidental injury, that require ongoing or immediate attention. This action will ensure that more Wisconsinites get the care they need, when they need it.”

The order is effective immediately and will remain in effect through the duration of the public health emergency.

In an effort to make it easier for any healthcare provider, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and therapists, to begin working in Wisconsin, the order changes the interstate reciprocity agreement to allow healthcare providers in other states to begin working prior to obtaining a temporary license. 

The healthcare providers instead must apply for either a temporary or permanent license within 10 days of first working at a healthcare facility. In turn, the healthcare facility must notify the state Department of Safety and Professional Services within five days of the healthcare provider working in the facility. 

The order addresses the state’s ongoing nursing shortage by adjusting clinical education requirements needed for nursing students to graduate by waiving a requirement that mandated 50 percent of clinical hours had to be completed in a hospital or clinical setting and 50 percent of clinical hours could be completed in a simulation lab. 

Because hospitals are no longer able to accommodate nursing students for clinical rotations, the order allows more than 50 percent of clinical hours to be completed in a simulation lab. 

Upon graduation from nursing school, nurses will be given a temporary license that is valid until the end of the coronavirus-related emergency or within six months of the state again scheduling the NCLEX, the test required for nurses to be licensed in Wisconsin. In most cases, the testing centers have closed. 

To encourage retired nurses or nurses who may have left the profession for another career to return to nursing, the order waives a provision so that nurses out of the practice and without a license for more than five years can return to the profession without paying any late fees and without having to take any continuing education courses, as is typically the case. 

This also would apply to physicians, psychiatrists, radiographers, social workers, psychologists, pharmacists, chiropractors, dentists and physical therapists. 

The order also provides greater flexibility to hospitals and healthcare systems to reassign physician assistants to areas of the hospital with shortages. For example, elective surgeries such as hip and knee replacements, are being canceled to provide more beds, hospital staff and medical supplies to treat COVID-19 patients.

Through this order, a physician assistant who had been working with a surgeon or other specialist can be reassigned to a more generalized area of practice to address hospital needs. 

The order also removes the “collaboration agreement” between nurse practitioners and physicians. Again, this will allow more highly trained professionals to work independently of one another to treat more patients or move to areas of the state facing a shortage. 

“We have heard from many providers who are eager to return to practice and help respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Other providers want the flexibility to go where the need is the greatest and respond as fully and effectively as possible,” said Dawn Crim, secretary of the state Department of Safety and Professional Services. “This order will better position Wisconsin’s healthcare workforce to deal with this public health emergency.”