- About 36% of nonelderly adults and 29% of children in the U.S. have delayed or foregone care because of concerns of being exposed to COVID-19 or providers limiting services due to the pandemic, according to new reports from the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- Of those who put off care, more than three-quarters had one or more chronic health conditions and one in three said the result of not getting treatment was worsening health or limiting their ability to work and perform regular daily activities, the research based on polling in September showed.
- However, the types of care being delayed are fairly routine. Among those surveyed, 25% put off dental care, while 21% put off checkups and 16% put off screenings or medical tests.
The early days of the pandemic saw widespread halts in non-emergency care, with big hits to provider finances.
In recent months, health systems have emphasized the services can be provided in hospitals and doctors offices safely as long as certain protocols are followed, and at least some research has backed them up. Groups like the American Hospital Association have launched ad campaigns urging people to return for preventive and routine care as well as emergencies.
But patients are apparently still wary, according to the findings based on surveys of about 4,000 adults conducted in September.
The research shows another facet of the systemic inequities harshly spotlighted by the pandemic. People of color are more likely to put off care than other groups. While 34% of Whites said they put off care, that percentage rose to 40% among Blacks and 36% among Latinos.
Income also played a role, as 37% of those with household incomes at or below 250% of the poverty level put off care, compared to 25% of those with incomes above that threshold.
Putting off care has had an impact industrywide, as the normally robust healthcare sector lost 30,000 jobs in January. Molina Healthcare warned last week that utilization will remain depressed for the foreseeable future.
Younger Americans were also impacted, with nearly 30% of parents saying they delayed at least one type of care for their children, while 16% delayed multiple types of care. As with adults, dental care was the most common procedure that was put off, followed by checkups or other preventative healthcare screenings.
The researchers recommended improving communications among providers and patients.
“Patients must be reassured that providers’ safety precautions follow public health guidelines, and that these precautions effectively prevent transmission in offices, clinics, and hospitals,” they wrote. “More data showing healthcare settings are not common sources of transmission and better communication with the public to promote the importance of seeking needed and routine care are also needed.”
“I don’t think we have good enough information to show how we should be deploying telemedicine,” a physician leader recently told us. “If we can’t show that a virtual visit can adequately substitute for an in-person visit, then we should be focusing on making sure patients know it’s safe to come in.” It struck us that viewing telemedicine as a direct substitute for an office visit was a narrow and antiquated way to think about virtual care.
Moreover, the argument that telemedicine visits are potentially cost-increasing if they are “additive” to other care interactions, rather than “substitutive”, is rooted in fee-for-service payment: more patient-provider interactions equals more billable visits, and with more visits, we run the risk of increasing costs.
Telemedicine (both video and phone visits) likely taps into pent-up demand for access by patients who would otherwise not seek care. Some patients could be aided by more frequent, brief encounters; this is considered a failure only when viewed through the lens of fee-for-service payment. (Honestly, with primary care accounting for less than 6 percent of total healthcare spending, it’s hard to argue that additional telemedicine visits will be responsible for supercharging the cost of care.) Of course, there are many clinical situations in which in-person interaction—to perform a physical exam, measure vitals, observe a patient—is fundamental. Patients know this, and understand that sometimes they’ll need to be seen in person. But hopefully that next encounter will be more efficient, having already covered the basics.
The ideal care model will look different for different patients, and different kinds of clinical problems—but will likely be a blend of both virtual and in-person interactions, maximizing communication, information-gathering, and patient convenience.
It turns out it’s not just the kids who aren’t getting snow days this year. This week, we spoke with an executive at a health system hit hard by Wednesday’s Nor’easter, and asked how the system was faring with the expected 18 inches of snowfall. He replied that the medical group was as busy as usual.
With all the work this spring to expand telemedicine capabilities, clinic staff were able to reach out to patients the day before the storm, and proactively convert a majority of scheduled in-person clinic visits to telemedicine. “Normally we would’ve been closed, and most appointments rescheduled for weeks down the road,” he told us. Instead, they were able to keep most of those visits in their scheduled time slot.
“Now that we have a systemwide process for telemedicine, I don’t think we’ll have a reason for the clinic to take a snow day again.” It’s a clear win-win for the system and patients: patient care seamlessly goes on. It’s easy to see the many use cases for the ability to toggle between in-person and virtual visits. A parent is stuck at home with a sick kid, and can’t make her endocrinologist appointment? Moved to virtual! A patient has an unexpected business trip taking him out of town? Don’t cancel, let’s do that follow-up visit via telemedicine.
We’ve been worried about the slowdown in progress made on telemedicine as patients switched back to in-person visits across the summer and fall. The ability to continue patient care during a record-breaking snowstorm is a perfect illustration of why it’s critical not to “backslide” with virtual care: meeting patients where they are, regardless of circumstances, is an essential part of building long-term loyalty and care continuity.
At the beginning of the pandemic, physicians and health systems implemented telemedicine solutions with unprecedented speed. In doing so, they went from mostly lagging behind payers and disruptors in digital medicine, to becoming the anchors who kept patients and doctors connected during the greatest health crisis in a century.
But over the past few weeks, we’ve detected a marked shift in the tone and focus of conversations around telemedicine with doctors and executives. Universally, systems have seen a drop in virtual visits as in-person care has returned—and most agree that today’s levels of telemedicine visits are lower than ideal.
“We peaked at 45 percent of outpatient visits delivered virtually in early May. Now telemedicine accounts for just five percent,” one physician leader told us. “I don’t know what ‘percent virtual’ is ideal, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than five percent.” Another leader described a shift from “rally to reality”.
At the height of the crisis, the entire system was singularly focused on keeping patients connected to care, bolstered by a loosening of regulatory and payment restrictions.
As systems now plan for a long-term virtual care strategy, we’re sensing a shift in focus to pre-COVID challenges: operations (centralization is needed to create a sustainable model, but each doctor wants to do virtual visits his own way), payment (should we really invest before we’re sure health plans will continue to pay at parity?), and turf battles (reemerging political discussions of who “owns” virtual care strategy).
Health plans, retailers and disruptors recognize the power of virtual care to build relationships and loyalty with consumers—and will invest heavily behind it. Providers have the advantage today. But to keep it, they’ll have to get out of their own way and continue to build, scale and refine their virtual care platforms.
- In-person doctor visits plummeted during the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, but have rebounded to a rate somewhat below pre-pandemic levels, according to a new analysis issued by The Commonwealth Fund and conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School, Harvard University and the life sciences firm Phreesia.
- According to data compiled through Aug. 1, all physician visits were down 9% from pre-pandemic levels. That’s significantly improved compared to data from late March, when visits were down 58%. Although the rebound got major traction beginning in late April, it began plateauing in early June, when all visits were 13% lower than normal. As of early August, in-person visits were down 16% compared to pre-COVID levels. States that are currently coronavirus hot spots are seeing bigger declines than states where the case levels are lower.
- Meanwhile, telemedicine encounters have settled in at rates much higher than pre-pandemic levels. However, they still make up just a fraction of patient-provider encounters for care. As of the start of this month, they comprised 7.8% of all such encounters. That’s compared to a peak of 13.8% in the latter part of April. Prior to COVID-19, they were only 0.1% of all visits.
COVID-19 has widely disrupted healthcare delivery in the United States. However, it is becoming clear that as the pandemic has become a part of everyday life for the time being, how patients visit their medical providers has also settled into a pattern.
According to Harvard researchers using data from Phreesia’s more than 50,000 provider clients, the plunge in patients seeing their physicians has rebounded from its nearly 60% dive in early spring. However, with all patient-physician encounters still consistently down from pre-COVID levels, the study’s authors warn that “the cumulative number of lost visits since mid-March remains substantial and continues to grow.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 hotspots in the South and Southwest are depressing patient-provider encounters for the time being. Encounters were down as of late July by 15% in Arizona, Florida and Texas, compared to 12% in the Northeast and 8% in all other states.
Among medical specialties, only dermatology has seen a rebound beyond pre-COVID levels, with encounters up about 8% overall. But primary care visits are down 2%; surgery encounters, 9%; orthopedics, 18%; and pediatrics are in a 26% decline.
That the encounters between patients, doctors and other providers remains lower than normal has sparked some concerns about practices and other medical enterprises moving forward. HHS just earmarked $1.4 billion for nearly 80 children’s hospitals across the United States to try to shore them up financially.
The private sector has also undertaken an initiative to encourage patients to return to their providers. Insurer Humana, along with the Providence and Baylor Scott & White healthcare systems, launched an advertising campaign last month to encourage patients to seek out healthcare needs, even during the historic pandemic.
Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations.
Nearly 9 in 10 primary care practices continue to face significant difficulties with COVID-19, including obtaining medical supplies, meeting the increasing health needs of their patients, and finding sufficient resources to remain operational, according to a recent survey of close to 600 primary care clinicians in 46 states.
Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, the survey found.
More than four months into the pandemic and at a time when 39 states are experiencing an increase of COVID-19 cases, fewer than 4 in 10 clinicians feel confident and safe with their access to personal protective equipment, according to the survey from the Larry A. Green Center in partnership with the Primary Care Collaborative, which was conducted July 10 to July 13.
Among the primary care clinicians surveyed, 11% report that staff in their practice have quit in the last four weeks over safety concerns.
A primary care provider in Ohio said this: “The ‘I can do 4-6 weeks of this’ transition to ‘this feels like a new/permanent normal’ is crushing and demoralizing. Ways to build morale when everyone is at a computer workstation away from other staff (and patients) feels impossible.”
“In the first few months of the pandemic, the country pulled together to stop the spread of the virus, and it seemed like we were making progress. Primary care clinicians and practices were working hard, against tremendous challenges,” said Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., co-director of The Larry A. Green Center in a statement.
“But now the country is backsliding, and it’s clear that primary care doesn’t have enough strength to deal with the rising number of cases. If primary care were a COVID-19 patient, it would be flat on its back,” Etz said.
The survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center is part of an ongoing series looking at the attitudes of primary care clinicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the abilities of practices to meet patients’ needs.
Close to 40% of primary care providers report they are maxed out with mental exhaustion and 18% say they spend each week wondering if their practice or job will still be there next week.
In addition to feeling stressed, clinicians and their practices are also experiencing upheaval. The survey found that 22% of clinicians report skipped or deferred salaries, and 78% report preventive and chronic care is being deferred or delayed by patients.
Primary care clinicians report that 42% of in-person volume is down but overall contact with patients is high, while 39% report not being able to bill for the majority of work delivered, the survey found.
“Given the rapidly rising infection rates and persistent lack of PPE, more than a third of primary care clinicians are reporting feeling unsafe at the office, and 20% are cutting back on face-to-face visits while doing more remote outreach,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative in a statement.
Greiner said this is a clear signal that payers must advance or retain parity for telehealth and telephonic calls.
“It also is a clarion call to move to a new payment system that doesn’t rely on face-to-face visits and that is prospective so practices can better manage patient care,” she said.
Providers say they need more support from private insurers, particularly when it comes to reimbursing for telehealth and telephone visits.
According to the survey, a primary care doctor in Illinois said, “Recently told we would not be able to conduct telephone visits due to lack of reimbursement. I work in a low-income Medicare population which has low health literacy and no technology literacy. We were 80% telephone and 20% Zoom and in-office. This further exemplifies the extreme health care disparities in the U.S.”
California’s outpatient health care practices largely shrugged off two recessions, adding more than 400,000 jobs during a two-decade climb from the start of 2000 to early 2020. It was an enviable growth rate of 85% and a trend largely mirrored on the national level.
Then came COVID-19.
Anecdotal stories abound about the crushing impact the pandemic has had on a range of outpatient medical services, from pediatric and family medical practices to dental offices, medical labs and home health care. In California, as in many other states, thousands of doctors, dentists and other health care providers temporarily closed offices this spring as state health officials directed them to suspend non-urgent visits. Many others sat open but largely idle because patients were too scared to visit the doctor given the risk of running into someone with COVID-19 in the waiting room.
As the economy has reopened, so have many medical offices. But the latest state and federal employment data underscores the lingering toll the pandemic has taken on the health care sector.
Doctors’ Offices Shed Jobs Amid COVID
In California, and across the nation, the number of workers in doctors’ offices grew by more than 50% in the past 20 years, before seeing rapid declines amid COVID-19. This chart shows proportional growth in employment over time, with percentages relative to January 2000.
In California, employment in medical offices providing an array of outpatient care fell by 159,300 jobs, or 18%, from February to April, according to California’s Employment Development Department. The sector has recovered some, but job totals in June remained 7% below pre-crisis levels, the latest figures show. Data is not yet available for July, when COVID-19 cases in California again began to rise sharply and communities across much of the state reverted to partial shutdowns.
Nationwide, employment in outpatient care fell by about 1.3 million jobs, or 17%, from February to April, and in June also remained 7% below pre-crisis levels.
Doctors’ offices typically rely on patient volume for revenue. Without it, they can’t make payroll. Many small medical clinics weren’t flush with cash before the crisis, making COVID-19 an existential threat.
“Never in our history have we had more than a month’s cash on hand,” said Dr. Sumana Reddy, owner of the Acacia Family Medical Group in Monterey County. “Think of it that way.”
Reddy operates two clinics, one in Salinas and the other in the town of Prunedale. Many of her clients come from rural areas where poverty is common. When COVID-19 hit and stay-at-home orders took effect, the number of patients coming to the practice fell by about 50%, Reddy said. To keep her patients safe and her business afloat, Reddy largely shifted to telehealth so she could provide care online.
She also turned to federal aid. “I took the stimulus money,” she said. “I asked for advances from anywhere I could get that. So, now I’m tapped out. I’ve done every single thing that I can think of to do. And there’s nothing more to do.”
By late June, patient volume at Reddy’s practice stood at roughly 70% of the level seen before the crisis.
Dental Offices Hit Hard by COVID
The coronavirus pandemic prompted steep declines in dental office employment, undoing 20 years of steady growth. This chart shows proportional growth in dental employment over time, with percentages relative to January 2000.
Many dental offices have been hit even harder. From February to April, the number of dental office employees in California fell by 85,000, or 60%, a rate of decline that outpaced even job losses in the state’s restaurant industry. Nationwide, dental employment fell by about 546,000 from February to April, a 56% decline.
“March, April, mid-May — we were pretty much closed except for emergency care,” said Dr. Natasha Lee, who owns Better Living Through Dentistry, a practice in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. “While dental offices were considered essential, most were closed due to guidance from health departments and the CDC to postpone routine and preventative medical and dental care and just to limit things to emergency.”
Lee has reopened her clinic but is doing less business. She and her staff need extra time to clean tools and change their personal protective equipment.
“With the social distancing, the limiting [of] patients in the office at a time and the slowdown we’ve had, we’re probably seeing about, I’d say, two-thirds of our normal capacity in our practice,” she said in late June.
As for employment, California hospitals have fared better than outpatient medical offices. Hospitals shed about 2% of jobs from February to June.
“They have more capacity in a large organization to withstand the same shock,” said John Romley, a professor and economist at the University of Southern California’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics.
Romley said he is optimistic the health care sector overall will recover faster than some other sectors of the economy, since health care remains a necessity.
Still, red flags abound. The recent spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in many parts of the nation raises the specter of future shutdowns and, with them, additional health care layoffs. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently ordered a second shutdown for dine-in restaurants, movie theaters and bars statewide, as well as churches, gyms and barbershops in much of the state. For now, dental and doctors’ offices can continue operating.
Older Californians Are Postponing Care
A recent census survey found that 42% of California respondents had put off medical care because of the pandemic.
But it’s uncertain when patients will feel comfortable returning to the doctor for routine and preventive care. A series of Census Bureau surveys conducted between June 11 and July 7 found that 42% of Californians who responded had put off medical care in the previous four weeks because of the pandemic. About 33% said they needed medical care for something unrelated to COVID-19 but did not get it.
“I’ve been telling my staff and patients that we should prepare for things to stay not too different for six months to a year,” Reddy said, “which is pretty depressing for most people to think about.”