Practice management is the responsibility of every pediatrician, and leadership is more important than ever in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ultimately you have a critical role in ensuring that your practice remains sustainable so that you can continue to deliver great care,” Sue Kressly, MD, a retired pediatrician from Warrington, Pa., said at the virtual annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “None of us escaped some impact of the COVID crisis, and many of us are going to experience lasting change.”
Dr. Kressly and Suzanne Berman, MD, a pediatrician in central Tennessee, presented a live online session on how the pandemic is affecting practices and how pediatricians can effectively address those challenges.
Three ways a crisis impacts practices
“When a practice experiences a crisis, it really exposes what your practice is made of, for better or for worse,” Dr. Berman said. “The COVID crisis has been profound and broad and long enough to really stress the core tensile strength of practices along at least three axes.” Those are staffing, financial health, and partnerships.
It’s a normal human response to enter survival mode during a crisis, so staff management becomes more important than ever. Some things to consider are whether you have a truly collaborative team culture in your practice and whether you’re really listening to the staff’s struggles and suggestions.
“Staffing challenges can be very difficult,” Dr. Berman said. “Permitting staff to work from home is the single biggest thing you can do when staff needs to self-isolate.”
Financially, most medical practices have adequate cash on hand not to have to pay close attention to the numbers, Dr. Kressly said, but if physicians are looking at their books for the first time during a crisis, they have no way of knowing what their baseline expectations should be or how much to worry about their finances. It’s important to understand your practice’s or department’s budget.
Jesse Hackell, MD, a private practice pediatrician in a suburb of New York City and vice president of the New York AAP Chapter 3, attended the session and appreciated this point on finances.
“In order to provide good quality care to kids, you need to be financially successful because otherwise you’ll close your doors,” Dr. Hackell said in an interview. “It’s making yourself available to be able to provide care.”
Stressors among partners during a crisis arise from responding to the challenges of the crisis, such as who should be impacted by pay cuts or furloughs, how to account for overhead, how to distribute revenue and how to divide the work equitably. Other issues include how to protect higher risk providers fairly and how to shift schedules or case load based on unforeseen events, including quarantining.
“There is no ‘fair’ in a crisis,” Dr. Berman said. “We must use the equity paradigm to be sure everyone has what they need to survive and have the best outcome possible.”
The speakers also discussed the importance of a practice’s situation before the pandemic began, a point that resonated with attendee Jason Terk, MD, a pediatrician who practices in a large pediatric health care system near Fort Worth, Texas.
“Just like the pandemic impacts the health of people in different ways based upon their baseline health, the pandemic impacts practices in different ways based on the practice’s baseline health,” he said in an interview. “If you had good operations, a good culture, good communication and all those other good indicators of practice health before, then you stood a much better chance of surviving the pandemic as a practice than practices that had weaknesses before.”
The size of a practice did not necessarily predict the impact of the crisis, Dr. Berman said. Rather, practices with good patient engagement, active recall programs, and good fiscal planning did better.
Dr. Hackell said. “We had never seen anything like this before,” he said in an interview. “From the start we had no idea what was going to work. Try something and see if it works. If it fails, try something else. We were all operating blind here.”
The focus of most practices in the spring was on well visits, chronic care follow-up, and telehealth. Going into fall and winter, innovation will be necessary to provide appropriate care for all children while keeping in mind that the choices pediatricians make will have long-lasting implications for their staff and patients. The speakers stressed the importance of communication and transparency within the office team and to patients and the community.
Dr. Hackell appreciated the speakers’ point that kids need care, and pediatricians need to meet that need.
“Kids need well care and immunizations, and kids get sick and need sick care,” he said. “Parents need a lot more reassurance during times like this. We need to be able to provide that care and be sure that we do it safely. To give the right care at the right time in the right location is key.”