On March 19, 2020, Gene Dorio, MD, a geriatrician at a two-physician practice in Santa Clarita, Calif., called his staff together to decide whether to stay open in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have seven people, and I did not want to put any of them at risk,” he said. “We don’t want to put patients at risk, either.” The practice had been operating successfully for many years.
The practice’s finances were being threatened by an abrupt and very significant decline in patient visits. “People have been canceling all the time,” he said. “They’re canceling out of fear. I saw 5 patients today, and I usually see 10-14 patients a day.”
After much discussion, “we decided to stay open,” he said. “That’s the most important thing we can do for our patients and this community.”
The staff will meet again in a few weeks to reassess their future. “This is a fluid situation,” Dr. Dorio said. If things do not improve financially, he does not rule out the possibility of having to close.
At medical practices across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening not only the lives of staff and patients but also the economic well-being of the practices themselves, and many are contemplating closing.
Many patients are not showing up for appointments. In addition, practices such as Dr. Dorio’s are advising older patients, who are at higher risk for mortality, not to come in, and they are canceling nonurgent visits. “Financially speaking, we are shooting ourselves in the foot,” Dr. Dorio said.
In addition, many hospitals are canceling elective procedures, which are an important source of income for a wide array of specialists, including gastroenterologists, orthopedic surgeons, and cardiologists. The thinking is that elective surgeries would take away important resources from COVID-19 patients and that elective-surgery patients would be put at risk of getting the virus.
The financial pain for practices came abruptly, says Steve Messinger, president of ECG Management Consultants in Washington, D.C. “The first half of March was somewhat normal for practices. In the second half of March, things escalated dramatically.”
In the past few weeks, “there has been a significant drop-off in the number of claims at health insurers,” Mr. Messinger said. “This loss of volume is reminiscent of what we saw during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.”
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“Most doctors are hoping that this will be a temporary slowdown of their practices,” said A. Michael La Penna, a practice management advisor in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It’s human nature to assume that relative normalcy will return fairly soon, so just hang in there.”
Some physicians who are putting off closing may be hoping for some kind of financial rescue. On March 19, the American Medical Association and several other major physician groups, including providing “dedicated financial support to all physicians and their practices who are experiencing adverse economic impact on their practices from suspending elective visits and procedures.”
Practices that have decided to stay open are radically changing their operations.
Phil Boucher, MD, a pediatrician in Lincoln, Neb., is trying to keep his office open by strategically reorganizing the way he schedules patient visits and by seeing patients via telemedicine.
Practices have also been separating well patients from sick ones. Dr. Boucher has started conducting well visits, such as seeing babies who are brought in for vaccination, in the morning and sick visits in the afternoon.
Dr. Boucher also says he has postponed physical examinations for the next school year until the summer, so that children are not put at risk for exposure at the practice. “Usually we like to space out the physicals so we won’t get overwhelmed in the summer, but we have no choice.”
“The concern is that you don’t want a lot of patients in your office at any one time,” said Gregory Mertz, a physician practice manager in Virginia Beach.
A group of urologists in Fredericksburg, Va., who are Mr. Mertz’s clients, have limited their practice to urgent visits, and patients are screened before coming in for an appointment. “When patients call, someone talks to the patient over the phone and determine whether they should come in,” said Mr. Mertz.