Hitting a Nerve

“I have to watch my bank accounts closely”: a solo practitioner during COVID-19


Medicine, as often said, is a business.

That’s often forgotten in a crisis, such as COVID-19, and with good reason. Our training in medicine is needed to care for the sick and find ways to prevent disease. Things like money are in the background when it comes to the emergencies of saving lives and helping the sick.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

But that doesn’t mean finances don’t matter. They’re always in the background for medical practices of all sizes – just like any business.

Some practices have closed for patient and staff safety. I haven’t gone that far, as some people still need me. I am, after all, a doctor.

So I’m alone in my office, my staff working from home. That helps cut some lines of transmission there.

Like everyone else, I’m also doing telemedicine, and even a few phone appointments. These keep all involved safe, but also have a lot of limitations. They’re fine for checking up on stable, established patients, or following up on test results. But certainly not for new patients or established ones with new problems.

After all, you can’t evaluate a foot drop, extrapyramidal rigidity, or do an EMG/NCV over the video-phone connection.

In-person appointments are spaced out to minimize the number of people in my waiting room. Patients are told not to come in if they’re sick, and I insist we both be wearing masks (of pretty much any kind at this point). Common-use pens, such as those out in the waiting room, are wiped down with alcohol between uses.

People need to be seen, in both good and bad times. That’s the nature of medicine. But the business of medicine is always there, too. So, as the coronavirus emergency plays out, I have to watch my bank accounts closely.

With only two staff members, there really isn’t anyone extraneous to cut. I’ve stopped taking a paycheck so I can keep paying them, my rent, and the other miscellaneous costs of running an office.

I’ve always taken a bonus only at the end of the year, after all the other accounts have been paid, and take only a modest regular salary. In this case, that’s worked to my advantage, as I had more cash on hand when the emergency started. While not a huge amount, it’s enough to buy me some time, maybe several weeks, to see how this plays out. After that I’d have to tap into a line of credit, which obviously no one wants to do.

Telemedicine and the few office patients I’m seeing are a trickle of revenue. It’s better than nothing, but certainly isn’t enough to keep the door open and lights on.

That said, I’m not ungrateful. I’m well aware how fortunate my practice and family are compared to many others during this time. I haven’t had to ask for a pass on a mortgage or rent payment – yet. My staff and I have been together since 2004. I’m not going to break up a great team now.

I have no idea when things will turn around and people will start to come in. Your guess is as good as mine. I suspect the trickle will slowly increase at some point, then suddenly there will be a surge of calls for appointments from people who’ve been putting off coming in. Even then, though, I’ll likely space appointments apart and keep using a mask until it appears things are stable. There are going to be further waves of infections, and we don’t know how bad they’ll be.

Like everyone else, I can only hope for the best.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz. He has no relevant disclosures.

Next Article:

Making something ordinary out of the extraordinary