Feature

Primary care physicians reshuffle their work, lives in a pandemic


 

During his shift at a COVID-19 drive-through triage screening area set up outside the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Robert Hopkins Jr., MD, noticed a woman bowled over in the front seat of her car.

director, division of general internal medicine, the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences College of Medicine Courtesy Dr. Robert Hopkins, Jr.

Dr. Robert Hopkins, Jr.

A nurse practitioner had just informed her that she had met the criteria for undergoing testing for the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

“She was very upset and was crying nearly inconsolably,” said Dr. Hopkins, who directs the division of general internal medicine at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences College of Medicine. “I went over and visited with her for a few minutes. She was scared to death that we [had] told her she was going to die. In her mind, if she had COVID-19 that meant a death sentence, and if we were testing her that meant she was likely to not survive.”

Dr. Hopkins tried his best to put testing in perspective for the woman. “At least she came to a level of comfort and realized that we were doing this for her, that this was not a death sentence, that this was not her fault,” he said. “She was worried about infecting her kids and her grandkids and ending up in the hospital and being a burden. Being able to spend that few minutes with her and help to bring down her level of anxiety – I think that’s where we need to put our efforts as physicians right now, helping people understand, ‘Yes, this is serious. Yes, we need to continue to social distance. Yes, we need to be cautious. But, we will get through this if we all work together to do so.’ ”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Hopkins spent part of his time seeing patients in the university’s main hospital, but most of it in an outpatient clinic where he and about 20 other primary care physicians care for patients and precept medical residents. Now, medical residents have been deployed to other services, primarily in the hospital, and he and his physician colleagues are conducting 80%-90% of patient visits by video conferencing or by telephone. It’s a whole new world.

“We’ve gone from a relatively traditional inpatient/outpatient practice where we’re seeing patients face to face to doing some face-to-face visits, but an awful lot of what we do now is in the technology domain,” said Dr. Hopkins, who also assisted with health care relief efforts during hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

“A group of six of us has been redeployed to assist with the surge unit for the inpatient facility, so our outpatient duties are being taken on by some of our partners.”

He also pitches in at the drive-through COVID-19 screening clinic, which was set up on March 27 and operates between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., 7 days a week. “We’re able to measure people’s temperature, take a quick screening history, decide whether their risk is such that we need to do a COVID-19 PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test,” he said. “Then we make a determination of whether they need to go home on quarantine awaiting those results, or if they don’t have anything that needs to be evaluated, or whether they need to be triaged to an urgent care setting or to the emergency department.”

To minimize his risk of acquiring COVID-19, he follows personal hygiene practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also places his work shoes in a shoebox, which he keeps in his car. “I put them on when I get to the parking deck at work, do my work, and then I put them in the shoebox, slip on another pair of shoes and drive home so I’m not tracking in things I potentially had on me,” said Dr. Hopkins, who is married and a father to two college-aged sons and a daughter in fourth grade. “When I get home I immediately shower, and then I exercise or have dinner with my family.”

Despite the longer-than-usual work hours and upheaval to the traditional medical practice model brought on by the pandemic, Dr. Hopkins, a self-described “glass half full person,” said that he does his best to keep watch over his patients and colleagues. “I’m trying to keep an eye out on my team members – physicians, nurses, medical assistants, and folks at the front desk – trying to make sure that people are getting rest, trying to make sure that people are not overcommitting,” he said. “Because if we’re not all working together and working for the long term, we’re going to be in trouble. This is not going to be a sprint; this is going to be a marathon for us to get through.”

To keep mentally centered, he engages in at least 40 minutes of exercise each day on his bicycle or on the elliptical machine at home. Dr. Hopkins hopes that the current efforts to redeploy resources, expand clinician skill sets, and forge relationships with colleagues in other disciplines will carry over into the delivery of health care when COVID-19 is a distant memory. “I hope that some of those relationships are going to continue and result in better care for all of our patients,” he said.

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