Adapting to a Brave New World
Even as they face a dark financial future, physicians have had to completely revamp the way they practice medicine — a cumbersome process that, in itself, incurred some financial losses. They had to obtain masks and other PPE, reposition or even close down their waiting rooms, cut back on unneeded staff, and adapt to telemedicine.
“It’s been an incredibly challenging time,” says Yonover, the Chicago urologist. “As a doctor. I cannot avoid contact, and it’s not totally clear yet how the virus spreads. But I don’t have the option of closing the door. As a practice owner, you’re responsible for the health and well-being of employees, patients, and the business.”
“A practice’s daily routine is somewhat slower and costlier,” says David N. Gans, MSHA, senior fellow at the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), which represents group practices. “Between each patient, you have to clean a lot more than previously, and you have to stock up on PPE such as masks and gowns. PPE used to be limited to infectious patients, but now it’s universal.”
At PA Clinical Network, a clinically integrated network in Pennsylvania, volume fell 40%-50% and income fell 30%-50% from late March to late April, according to Jaan Sidorov, MD, an internist who is CEO of the network, which has 158 physicians in a variety of specialties working in 54 practices around the state.
“Revenue went down but it didn’t crash,” he says. “And our physicians pivoted very quickly. They adapted to telehealth and applied for the federal loan programs. They didn’t use waiting rooms. In some cases, staff was out in the parking lot, putting stethoscopes through patients’ windows.”
“None of the practices closed, not even temporarily,” Sidorov says. “But clearly this cannot go forever without having serious consequences.”
How Much Can Telemedicine Help?
Telemedicine has been a lifeline for many struggling practices. “As much as 20% to 40% of a practice’s losses can be recouped through telemedicine, depending on variables like patients’ attitudes,” says Singleton at Merritt Hawkins.
The rise in telemedicine was made possible by a temporary relaxation of the limits on telemedicine payments by Medicare and many private payers. Medicare is currently paying the same rates for telemedicine as for in-office visits.