Managing Your Practice

If you reopen it, will they come?


 

On April 16, the White House released federal guidelines for reopening American businesses – followed 3 days later by specific recommendations from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for health care practices in areas with a low incidence of COVID-19. Since then, a slew of resources and guidelines have emerged to help you safely reopen your medical practice.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

Depending on where you live, you may have already reopened (or even never closed), or you may be awaiting the relaxation of restrictions in your state. (As I write this on June 10, the stay-at-home order in my state, New Jersey, is being rescinded.)

The big question, of course, is whether patients can be convinced that it is safe to leave their homes and come to your office. The answer may depend on how well you time your reopening and adhere to the appropriate federal, state, and independent guidelines.

The federal guidelines have three sections: criteria, which outline conditions each region or state should satisfy before reopening; preparedness, which lists how states should prepare for reopening; and phase guidelines, which detail responsibilities of individuals and employers during distinct reopening phases.

You should pay the most attention to the “criteria” section. The key question to ask: “Has my state or region satisfied the basic criteria for reopening?”

Those criteria are as follows:

  • Symptoms reported within a 14-day period should be on a downward trajectory.
  • Cases documented (or positive tests as a percentage of total tests) within a 14-day period should also be on a downward trajectory.
  • Hospitals should be treating all patients without crisis care. They should also have a robust testing program in place for at-risk health care workers.

If your area meets these criteria, you can proceed to the CMS recommendations. They cover general advice related to personal protective equipment (PPE), workforce availability, facility considerations, sanitation protocols, supplies, and testing capacity.

The key takeaway: As long as your area has the resources to quickly respond to a surge of COVID-19 cases, you can start offering care to non-COVID patients. Keep seeing patients via telehealth as often as possible, and prioritize surgical/procedural care and high-complexity chronic disease management before moving on to preventive and cosmetic services.

The American Medical Association has issued its own checklist of criteria for reopening your practice to supplement the federal guidelines. Highlights include the following:

  • Sit down with a calendar and pick an expected reopening day. Ideally, this should include a “soft reopening.” Make a plan to stock necessary PPE and write down plans for cleaning and staffing if an employee or patient is diagnosed with COVID-19 after visiting your office.
  • Take a stepwise approach so you can identify challenges early and address them. It’s important to figure out which visits can continue via telehealth, and begin with just a few in-person visits each day. Plan out a schedule and clearly communicate it to patients, clinicians, and staff.
  • Patient safety is your top concern. Encourage patients to visit without companions whenever possible, and of course, all individuals who visit the office should wear a cloth face covering.
  • Screen employees for fevers and other symptoms of COVID-19; remember that those records are subject to HIPAA rules and must be kept confidential. Minimize contact between employees as much as possible.
  • Do your best to screen patients before in-person visits, to verify they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19. Consider creating a script that office staff can use to contact patients 24 hours before they come in. Use this as a chance to ask about symptoms, and explain any reopening logistics they should know about.
  • Contact your malpractice insurance carrier to discuss whether you need to make any changes to your coverage.

This would also be a great time to review your confidentiality, privacy, and data security protocols. COVID-19 presents new challenges for data privacy – for example, if you must inform coworkers or patients that they have come into contact with someone who tested positive. Make a plan that follows HIPAA guidelines during COVID-19. Also, make sure you have a plan for handling issues like paid sick leave or reporting COVID-19 cases to your local health department.

Another useful resource is the Medical Group Management Association’s COVID-19 Medical Practice Reopening Checklist. You can use it to confirm that you are addressing all the important items, and that you haven’t missed anything.

As for me, I am advising patients who are reluctant to seek treatment that many medical problems pose more risk than COVID-19, faster treatment means better outcomes, and because we maintain strict disinfection protocols, they are far less likely to be infected with COVID-19 in my office than, say, at a grocery store.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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