In summary

The Healthforce Center team at UC San Francisco has crafted a multi-front coronavirus battle plan for California Gov. Newsom that could redesign our health care system.

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By Kate Karpilow, Special to CalMatters

Kate Karpilow is a writer who previously directed the California Center for Research on Women and Families at the Public Health Institute,

Health care workers and first-responders are our new superheroes. And let’s add to the list: super-market checkers processing long lines, InstaCart employees delivering groceries, staff at food banks and homeless shelters.

But who would have guessed that a wonky, MIT and Stanford-trained academic working at the University of California, San Francisco, would also be a superhero?

No doubt about it: Joanne Spetz, associate director of research, and her colleagues at the Healthforce Center make up one of many Marvel-like teams fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic here in California.

The Healthforce Center at UCSF is nationally recognized for research on the health care workforce. They’ve studied workers in long-term care, oral care, medical labs, nursing and a field most of us only recently tuned into: respiratory care.

The Healthforce team was asked by Gov. Gavin Newsom to offer recommendations to “support rapid scale-up of the health workforce to address the COVID-19 crisis in California.”

Our savvy governor is preparing for a worst-case scenario, which means not only adding a potential 50,000 patient beds to existing care capacity, but also boosting the number of health care professionals who can assist and treat the escalating number of patients. 

Even with the flexibility and power afforded the governor under California’s current state of emergency, tackling such a major “system redesign” is an unprecedented task.

And it requires expert understanding of the laws, regulations and funding streams that govern the education of health professionals, hospital administration and patient care.

That’s why Spetz and her colleagues – Sunita Mutha, Laura Wagner, Susan Chapman, Janet Coffman and Michelle Ko (now at UC Davis) – are superheroes. They have the knowledge, experience and judgement to help re-engineer bureaucracies into more nimble fighting machines.

Because we really do need to win this war.

In a weekend of non-stop work, the Healthforce team tapped decades of combined expertise to whip together a seven-page set of recommendations, “thematically organized” into four categories:

–  Expansion of the scope of practice for active health professionals 

–  Expedited licensing for eligible health professionals 

–  Deploying students to rapidly expand the health workforce 

–  Activating National Guard and military personnel with experience in the health professions 

According to Spetz, the governor and his staff are working “night and day,” crafting a many-front COVID-19 battle plan.

Don’t be surprised if nurse practitioners are permitted to practice without physician supervision. Or if “emergency licenses” are made available to nursing and medical students in their last semester of school. Or if medical professionals in the state’s National Guard are activated and called into service.

Redesigning our health care system to deal with the coronavirus crisis is clearly a task for a new class of superheroes – public health professionals and policy wonks.

The Marvel-ous team from Healthforce may not scale buildings in a single bound, but they can estimate expected demand for nurses and other health professionals, and help leaders dodge regulations not designed for a pandemic.

Though I doubt they wear capes to work.

I read recently that “Corona Fear” may make all of us believers in fact and science.

Perhaps, during this worldwide crisis, we’ll come to value the public health professionals who gather and assess information, and understand that, for them, success is often about what didn’t happen, like a pandemic contained.

Joanne Spetz gets the last word: “I hope we all look back and say we didn’t need 50,000 beds – but over-doing it can be OK. We don’t want to under-do it and have people die as a result.”


Kate Karpilow is a writer who previously directed the California Center for Research on Women and Families at the Public Health Institute,

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