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Primary care isn’t bouncing back


Primary care is not bouncing back to its prepandemic status, according to a new survey published by the Primary Care Collaborative (PCC) and Larry A. Green Center.

Since mid-March these organizations have issued short weekly and biweekly surveys to U.S. primary care physicians in an attempt to find the pulse of the county’s first line of care. “There is not a federal office for primary care, and it’s been anemically funded for decades,” Rebecca Etz, PhD, said in an interview. Yet these clinics represent the front lines of U.S. health care, and it’s where most Americans go for care and COVID-19 care, said Dr. Etz, director of the Virginia-based Larry A. Green Center, which is devoted to primary care research, development, and advocacy.

The latest survey responses, collected between Sept. 4 and 6, confirm what researchers had suspected: Primary care isn’t on solid footing. Eighty-one percent of respondents disagreed emphatically that primary care has bounced back, and another 13% said things were better than earlier this year but not normal.

Meanwhile, 35% of respondents said that revenue and pay are significantly lower than they were before the pandemic and net losses threaten their practices’ viability. Almost half (49%) said their mental exhaustion from work was at an all-time high.

“Because of how our system is set up – it’s a fee-for-service model – the more patients you see, the more money you get,” said Yalda Jabbarpour, MD, medical director at the Graham Center, a leading think tank on family medicine and health care policy. But the stay-at-home order, aversion to telehealth, and fear of in-person visits have been keeping patients away – and driving primary care revenue down. Even when practices transition to and expand their telehealth, payer reimbursement is not yet on parity with in-person visits.

Right now, primary care physicians are doing fewer procedures and spending more time on video visits. “So you may have the same overhead and time investment but you’re getting paid a fraction,” Dr. Etz said. In August, 50% of primary care physicians reported they were working the same or more hours per week as they did before the pandemic but for less money, according to an earlier survey from the Green Center and the PCC. That loss of revenue is compounded by the need for expensive personal protective equipment and preparation for the upcoming flu season, Dr. Etz said.

Ongoing surveys reveal stress

Over the last 20 weeks or so, the Green Center and PCC together have disseminated weekly (through June) or biweekly surveys to 100 professional organizations. Because there isn’t an entity that represents all of primary care and claims data take years to process, these surveys are intended to get real-time feedback from clinicians who are providing a lot of patient care during the pandemic.

The sample sizes are admittedly small, with the most recent survey including 489 clinicians. Dr. Jabbarpour noted, “489 – it’s a good number, but you would want more.” Generally, for a great survey response you’d want 20%-30% of the physician population because then you could assume you’re getting a good mix of geographies, practice sizes, and settings, she said.

Respondents to the most recent survey were from 49 different states; 70% identified their practice as family medicine. One-third had between one and three physicians in their practice and 40% had 10 or more clinicians. “It’s not perfect, but it sounds pretty representative of the primary care workforce,” Dr. Jabbarpour continued.

The latest Green Center-PCC survey, published last week, also found that one in five physicians surveyed said at least one clinician in their practice had opted for early retirement or left practice as a direct result of the pandemic. These declines in clinician staffing come as school reopenings threaten to cause a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and the 2021 flu season could complicate COVID-19 care and testing.


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