National Doctors' Day takes on much greater meaning this year

Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA , Former President

Physicians display heroism and courage every day in their hospitals and clinics. But today, on National Doctors’ Day, their selflessness in the face of a deepening health crisis is truly extraordinary.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold and upend American life, physicians, nurses and the health care workforce leading this remarkable response effort are putting their health and safety on the line every day.

We’ve seen many cases in the U.S and around the globe in which physicians have fallen seriously ill or died after treating patients for COVID-19. The physical toll alone is daunting—extremely long and taxing hours in the hospital—but the emotional toll is just as significant, and enough to overwhelm even the most seasoned and experienced doctor. No one can say for sure how long the health threat will last or how much more our nation’s physicians will be asked to give.

Their courage in this crisis is magnified by woefully inadequate supplies of even the most basic equipment and protective gear. Physicians in some of the states and urban centers that have been hit hardest by the pandemic are pleading for tens of thousands of additional masks, gowns and gloves to care for the surging patient population.

We’re hearing from physicians and hospital administrators that existing supplies are so depleted that they may only last a matter of days or weeks in many care facilities. Physicians are reusing masks, sewing masks at home, and being told to use bandanas. With the health and safety of physicians and patients on the line, an inadequate supply of protective equipment is completely unacceptable.

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COVID-19: Frequently asked questions

This is why the AMA continues to press the administration to leverage every tool at its disposal, including fully employing production and distribution mechanisms of the Defense Production Act. Although the president has signed an executive order that would allow him to exercise this authority, he has not yet provided sufficient clarity about how that authority is being used.

While state and local governments will continue to play significant roles in determining priorities for how protective equipment will be used, strong federal leadership is critical to overcome these supply shortages and provide clarity to physicians and other health care providers about use of the rapidly dwindling supplies.

Guidance for trying times

The AMA’s Principles of Medical Ethics provide guidance to physicians in times of a pandemic, reminding us of our obligation to place our patient’s welfare above our own, the need to protect and promote public health, and the ethical considerations involved in providing care under the most urgent and trying circumstances.

Physicians shoulder all of these responsibilities and more as a routine part of their professional lives—but that fact does not diminish the burden they undertake on our behalf.

When you ask physicians why they chose their profession, answers vary. But one theme tends to underlie all the responses: a profound commitment to helping others. We are called upon to help in moments like these. As I said in my inaugural address last year—that feels like a lifetime ago—“Physicians don’t run from challenges. We run toward them.”

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COVID-19: How the AMA is supporting physicians on the front lines

We observe National Doctors’ Day today with many questions and much concern and fear about what the next few weeks and months will bring. COVID-19 has already left its mark on the American psyche and on all of this nation’s doctors, who have so courageously set aside their own fears to help those in need, lend a hand to an overburdened colleague, gather supplies and equipment for those who may soon go without, and accelerate the research to develop a vaccine or medication that may bring an end to this pandemic once and for all.

Physicians undertake these efforts because we are called to do so, not to earn public recognition or thanks. But we must thank them and offer them our heartfelt gratitude and praise, on National Doctors’ Day and every day.