COVID-19 Spurs Telemedicine, Furloughs, Retirement

Gregory Twachtman

April 29, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The broad use of telemedicine has been a bright spot in the COVID-19 response, but the pandemic is also creating significant disruption as some physicians are furloughed and others consider practice changes.

A recent survey of physicians conducted by Merritt Hawkins and The Physicians Foundation examined how physicians are being affected by and responding to the pandemic. The findings are based on completed surveys from 842 physicians. About one-third of respondents are primary care physicians, while two-thirds are surgical, medical, and diagnostic specialists and subspecialists.

The survey shines a light on the rapid adoption of telemedicine, with 48% of physicians respondents reporting that they are now treating patients through telemedicine.

"I think that is purely explainable on the situation that COVID has led to with the desire to see patients remotely, still take care of them, and the fact that at the federal level this was recognized and doctors are being compensated for seeing patients remotely," Gary Price, MD, a plastic surgeon and president of The Physicians Foundation, said in an interview.

"The Foundation does a study of the nation's physicians every other year and in 2018, when we asked the same question, only 18% of physicians were using some form of telemedicine," he added.

And Dr. Price said he thinks the shift to telemedicine is here to stay.

"I think that will be a lasting effect of the pandemic," he said. "More physicians and more patients will be using telemedicine approaches, I think, from here on out. We will see a shift that persists. I think that's a good thing. Physicians like it. Patients like it. It won't replace all in-person visits, certainly, but there are a number of health care visits that could be taken care of quite well with a virtual visit and it saves the patients travel time, time away from work, and I think it can make the physicians' practice more efficient as well."

The key to sustainability, he said, will be that private insurers and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services continue to pay for it.

"I think we will have had a good demonstration, not only that it can work, but that it does work and that it can be accomplished without any diminishment in the quality of care that's delivered," he said.

But the recent survey also identified a number of employment issues that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, 18% of respondents who were treating COVID-19 patients and 30% of those not treating COVID-19 patients reported that they had been furloughed or experienced a pay cut. Among respondents, just 38.5% reported that they are seeing COVID-19 patients.

"It is unprecedented to my knowledge in the physician employment sphere," Dr. Price said. "That was the most surprising thing to me. I think you might be able to explain that by the increasing number of physicians who are employees now of larger health systems and the fact that a big portion of those health systems too, in normal times, involves care that right now no one is able to get to or even wants to be seen for because of the risk, of course, of COVID-19."

The survey also revealed that some respondents had or were planning a change in practice because of COVID-19: 14% said they had or would seek a different practice, 6% reported they had or would find a job without patient care, 7% said they had or would close their practice temporarily, 5% reported that they had or would retire, and 4% said they had or would leave private practice and seek employment at a hospital.

"The survey represents how they are feeling at the time and it doesn't mean they will necessarily do that, but if even a portion of doctors did that all at once, we would really aggravate an access problem and what we know is a worsening physician shortage in the country," he said. "So we are very concerned about that."

Dr. Price also predicted there would be increased consolidation within the health care system as more smaller, independent practices feel the financial stress of the pandemic.

"I hope that I am wrong about that," he said. "I think smaller practices offer a very cost-effective solution for high-quality care, and their competition in the marketplace for health care is a good and healthy thing."

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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