The less-discussed consequence of healthcare’s labor shortage

How Could You Be Affected by the Healthcare Labor Shortage? - Right Way  Medical

The healthcare industry’s staffing shortage crisis has had clear consequences for care delivery and efficiency, forcing some health systems to pause nonemergency surgeries or temporarily close facilities. Less understood is how these shortages are affecting care quality and patient safety. 

A mix of high COVID-19 patient volume and staff departures amid the pandemic has put hospitals at the heart of a national staffing shortage, but there is little national data available to quantify the shortages’ effects on patient care. 

The first hint came last month from a CDC report that found healthcare-associated infections increased significantly in 2020 after years of steady decline. Researchers attributed the increase to challenges related to the pandemic, including staffing shortages and high patient volumes, which limited hospitals’ ability to follow standard infection control practices. 

“That’s probably one of the first real pieces of data — from a large scale dataset — that we’ve seen that gives us some sense of direction of where we’ve been headed with the impact of patient outcomes as a result of the pandemic,” Patricia McGaffigan, RN, vice president of safety programs for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, told Becker’s. “I think we’re still trying to absorb much of what’s really happening with the impact on patients and families.”

An opaque view into national safety trends

Because of lags in data reporting and analysis, the healthcare industry lacks clear insights into the pandemic’s effect on national safety trends.

National data on safety and quality — such as surveys of patient safety culture from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality — can often lag by several quarters to a year, according to Ms. McGaffigan. 

“There [have been] some declines in some of those scores more recently, but it does take a little while to be able to capture those changes and be able to put those changes in perspective,” she said. “One number higher or lower doesn’t necessarily indicate a trend, but it is worth really evaluating really closely.”

For example, 569 sentinel events were reported to the Joint Commission in the first six months of 2021, compared to 437 for the first six months of 2020. However, meaningful conclusions about the events’ frequency and long-term trends cannot be drawn from the dataset, as fewer than 2 percent of all sentinel events are reported to the Joint Commission, the organization estimates.

“We may never have as much data as we want,” said Leah Binder, president and CEO of the Leapfrog Group. She said a main area of concern is CMS withholding certain data amid the pandemic. Previously, the agency has suppressed data for individual hospitals during local crises, but never on such a wide scale, according to Ms. Binder.  

CMS collects and publishes quality data for more than 4,000 hospitals nationwide. The data is refreshed quarterly, with the next update scheduled for October. This update will include additional data for the fourth quarter of 2020.

“It is important to note that CMS provided a blanket extraordinary circumstances exception for Q1 and Q2 2020 data due to the COVID-19 pandemic where data was not required nor reported,” a CMS spokesperson told Becker’s. “In addition, some current hospital data will not be publicly available until about July 2022, while other data will not be available until January 2023 due to data exceptions, different measure reporting periods and the way in which CMS posts data.”

Hospitals that closely monitor their own datasets in more near-term windows may have a better grasp of patient safety trends at a local level. However, their ability to monitor, analyze and interpret that data largely depends on the resources available, Ms. McGaffigan said. The pandemic may have sidelined some of that work for hospitals, as clinical or safety leaders had to shift their priorities and day-to-day activities. 

“There are many other things besides COVID-19 that can harm patients,” Ms. Binder told Becker’s. “Health systems know this well, but given the pandemic, have taken their attention off these issues. Infection control and quality issues are not attended to at the level of seriousness we need them to be.”

What health systems should keep an eye on 

While the industry is still waiting for definitive answers on how staffing shortages have affected patient safety, Ms. Binder and Ms. McGaffigan highlighted a few areas of concern they are watching closely. 

The first is the effect limited visitation policies have had on families — and more than just the emotional toll. Family members and caregivers are a critical player missing in healthcare safety, according to Ms. Binder. 

When hospitals don’t allow visitors, loved ones aren’t able to contribute to care, such as ensuring proper medication administration or communication. Many nurses have said they previously relied a lot on family support and vigilance. The lack of extra monitoring may contribute to the increasing stress healthcare providers are facing and open the door for more medical errors.

Which leads Ms. Binder to her second concern — a culture that doesn’t always respect and prioritize nurses. The pandemic has underscored how vital nurses are, as they are present at every step of the care journey, she continued. 

To promote optimal care, hospitals “need a vibrant, engaged and safe nurse workforce,” Ms. Binder said. “We don’t have that. We don’t have a culture that respects nurses.” 

Diagnostic accuracy is another important area to watch, Ms. McGaffigan said. Diagnostic errors — such as missed or delayed diagnoses, or diagnoses that are not effectively communicated to the patient — were already one of the most sizable care quality challenges hospitals were facing prior to the pandemic. 

“It’s a little bit hard to play out what that crystal ball is going to show, but it is in particular an area that I think would be very, very important to watch,” she said.

Another area to monitor closely is delayed care and its potential consequences for patient outcomes, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Many Americans haven’t kept up with preventive care or have had delays in accessing care. Such delays could not only worsen patients’ health conditions, but also disengage them and prevent them from seeking care when it is available. 

Reinvigorating safety work: Where to start

Ms. McGaffigan suggests healthcare organizations looking to reinvigorate their safety work go back to the basics. Leaders should ensure they have a clear understanding of what their organization’s baseline safety metrics are and how their safety reports have been trending over the past year and a half.

“Look at the foundational aspects of what makes care safe and high-quality,” she said. “Those are very much linked to a lot of the systems, behaviors and practices that need to be prioritized by leaders and effectively translated within and across organizations and care teams.”

She recommended healthcare organizations take a total systems approach to their safety work, by focusing on the following four, interconnected pillars:

  • Culture, leadership and governance
  • Patient and family engagement
  • Learning systems
  • Workforce safety

For example, evidence shows workforce safety is an integral part of patient safety, but it’s not an area that’s systematically measured or evaluated, according to Ms. McGaffigan. Leaders should be aware of this connection and consider whether their patient safety reporting systems address workforce safety concerns or, instead, add on extra work and stress for their staff. 

Safety performance can slip when team members get busy or burdensome work is added to their plates, according to Ms. McGaffigan. She said leaders should be able to identify and prioritize the essential value-added work that must go on at an organization to ensure patients and families will have safe passage through the healthcare system and that care teams are able to operate in the safest and healthiest work environments.

In short, leaders should ask themselves: “What is the burdensome work people are being asked to absorb and what are the essential elements that are associated with safety that you want and need people to be able to stay on top of,” she said.

To improve both staffing shortages and quality of care, health systems must bring nurses higher up in leadership and into C-suite roles, Ms. Binder said. Giving nurses more authority in hospital decisions will make everything safer. Seattle-based Virginia Mason Hospital recently redesigned its operations around nurse priorities and subsequently saw its quality and safety scores go up, according to Ms. Binder. 

“If it’s a good place for a nurse to go, it’s a good place for a patient to go,” Ms. Binder said, noting that the national nursing shortage isn’t just a numbers game; it requires a large culture shift.

Hospitals need to double down on quality improvement efforts, Ms. Binder said. “Many have done the opposite, for good reason, because they are so focused on COVID-19. Because of that, quality improvement efforts have been reduced.”

Ms. Binder urged hospitals not to cut quality improvement staff, noting that this is an extraordinarily dangerous time for patients, and hospitals need all the help they can get monitoring safety. Hospitals shouldn’t start to believe the notion that somehow withdrawing focus on quality will save money or effort.  

“It’s important that the American public knows that we are fighting for healthcare quality and safety — and we have to fight for it, we all do,” Ms. Binder concluded. “We all have to be vigilant.”

Conclusion

The true consequences of healthcare’s labor shortage on patient safety and care quality will become clear once more national data is available. If the CDC’s report on rising HAI rates is any harbinger of what’s to come, it’s clear that health systems must place renewed focus and energy on safety work — even during something as unprecedented as a pandemic. 

The irony isn’t lost on Ms. Binder: Amid a crisis driven by infectious disease, U.S. hospitals are seeing higher rates of other infections.  

“A patient dies once,” she concluded. “They can die from COVID-19 or C. diff. It isn’t enough to prevent one.”

Many Americans Remain Uninsured Following Layoffs

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See if Coverage Loss Qualifies for Special Enrollment Period Today |  HealthCare.gov

Job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic are the highest since the Great Depression. A year and a half later, most Americans who lost their health insurance along with their job remain uninsured.

Most Americans who lost their jobs and health insurance more than a year ago remain uninsured.

Over 1,200 Americans who are still unemployed due to COVID-19 were surveyed by AffordableHealthInsurance.com. At least four out of five in all participants don’t have insurance coverage.

To be exact, 56% of Americans who remain unemployed since being laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic lost their health insurance along with their job. In addition, 23% of workers did not have employer-provided health insurance prior to losing their jobs.

Even before the pandemic, small businesses struggled to absorb the cost of providing health insurance to their employees, said health insurance advisor and nursing consultant Tammy Burns in the Affordable Health Insurance study.

“Companies have cut costs by going with high-deductible plans and sharing less of the cost towards the insurance,” Burns said. “This makes it cheaper for employees to get their own health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace. At larger companies, health care costs are growing faster than worker wages, so a large amount of an employee’s check goes to insurance. Therefore, many workers opt out because they can’t afford it.”

Majority of Those Who Lost Health Insurance Still Lack Coverage

Of the 56% of unemployed Americans who lost their health insurance along with their job, 81% are still uninsured.

This lack of coverage is impacting certain groups more than others. There are also several contributing factors to why the number of unemployed Americans without health insurance remains high.

These factors are:

  • Men more likely to remain uninsured than women

When broken down by gender, men are more likely than women to have lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs at 66% and 44%, respectively. However, women are twice as likely as men to have not had health insurance in the first place at 31% and 16%, respectively.

Currently, men are slightly more likely to still be uninsured. Eighty-four percent of male survey respondents do not currently have health insurance, compared to 75% of women.

  • Majority of unemployed Millennials, Gen Xers still uninsured

Our survey also found that certain age groups are more likely than others to still be uninsured after a pandemic-related job loss.

Eighty-six percent of individuals ages 35 to 44, and 84% of both 25 to 34 year-olds and 45 to 54 year-olds remain without health insurance after being laid off. Comparatively, 67% of unemployed individuals 18 to 24, and 58% of those older than 55 are still uninsured.

Americans ages 25 to 44 are also the age group most likely to have lost their health insurance when they were let go from their jobs (66%).

  • Inability to Afford Private Insurance The Top Reason to Remain Uninsured

The high cost of individual insurance is the number one reason Americans still unemployed from the pandemic remain uninsured.

Sixty-seven percent of those uninsured can’t afford private health insurance. Eleven percent of people who still lack health insurance say they did not qualify for government-funded health insurance, despite the fact that a number of states expanded access to Medicaid during the pandemic.

A lack of understanding about how the ACA marketplace works may also play a role in why uninsured Americans are not pursuing all possible avenues to get health insurance.

“People are scared of the ACA because it involves a lot of personal information, like taxes,” Burns said. “I have found that many people are afraid it is ‘the government being in my business.’ There is a lack of knowledge about how helpful and affordable the ACA is now. There needs to be better education about this program.”

  • One in five uninsured Americans choose not to have health insurance

The survey also found 20% of unemployed Americans who are uninsured choose to forgo health insurance altogether.

This is particularly true for men, 22% of whom are choosing not to have health insurance, compared to 15% of women.

Younger adults are also more likely than older Americans to opt out of health insurance if they are unemployed. Twenty-five percent of 25 to 34 year-olds, and 20% of 25 to 34 year-olds choose not to have health insurance.

  • Medication, Routine Checkups Skipped Due to Lack of Insurance

A lack of insurance has serious short- and long-term implications for individuals’ health and well-being. The biggest impact: 58% of uninsured individuals are no longer getting routine care, which could hinder their ability to identify more serious underlying issues.

Other impacts include no longer taking doctor-prescribed medication (56%); delaying planned medical procedures (46%); not seeking treatment for chronic issues (44%), and no longer receiving mental health treatment (41%).

  • Three-quarters of older Americans not getting regular check-ups

Our survey also found that those at greater risk for medical issues, based on age, are the most likely to be skipping their routine check-ups. Three-fourths of uninsured individuals over the age of 55 (76%) say they are not going for regular doctor visits because of their lack of insurance, the highest percentage of any age group.

Meanwhile, 64% of individuals 35 to 44 are not taking doctor-prescribed medication, which can have both short- and long-term negative effects.

  • Majority of Uninsured Americans “Very likely” to be Financially Devastated by Medical Emergency

Given that so many individuals are already hard-pressed to afford health insurance, it’s not surprising that many of them will also be in a dangerous place financially if there is a medical emergency.

Fifty-nine percent of uninsured people are “very likely” to be financially devastated by a medical emergency, while another quarter are “somewhat likely” to face financial ruin in the event of a medical emergency.

CVS wants to employ doctors. Should health systems be worried?

https://mailchi.mp/96b1755ea466/the-weekly-gist-november-19-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

HealthHUB | CVS Health

We recently caught up with a health system chief clinical officer, who brought up some recent news about CVS. “I was really disappointed to hear that they’re going to start employing doctors,” he shared, referring to the company’s announcement earlier this month that it would begin to hire physicians to staff primary care practices in some stores. He said that as his system considered partnerships with payers and retailers, CVS stood out as less threatening compared to UnitedHealth Group and Humana, who both directly employ thousands of doctors: “Since they didn’t employ doctors, we saw CVS HealthHUBs as complementary access points, rather than directly competing for our patients.” 

As CVS has integrated with Aetna, the company is aiming to expand its use of retail care sites to manage cost of care for beneficiaries. CEO Karen Lynch recently described plans to build a more expansive “super-clinic” platform targeted toward seniors, that will offer expanded diagnostics, chronic disease management, mental health and wellness, and a smaller retail footprint. The company hopes that these community-based care sites will boost Aetna’s Medicare Advantage (MA) enrollment, and it sees primary care physicians as central to that strategy.

It’s not surprising that CVS has decided to get into the physician business, as its primary retail pharmacy competitors have already moved in that direction. Last month, Walgreens announced a $5.2B investment to take a majority stake in VillageMD, with an eye to opening of 1,000 “Village Medical at Walgreens” primary care practices over the next five years. And while Walmart’s rollout of its Walmart Health clinics has been slower than initially announced, its expanded clinics, led by primary care doctors and featuring an expanded service profile including mental health, vision and dental care, have been well received by consumers. In many ways employing doctors makes more sense for CVS, given that the company has looked to expand into more complex care management, including home dialysis, drug infusion and post-operative care. And unlike Walmart or Walgreens, CVS already bears risk for nearly 3M Aetna MA members—and can immediately capture the cost savings from care management and directing patients to lower-cost servicesin its stores.

But does this latest move make CVS a greater competitive threat to health systems and physician groups? In the war for talent, yes. Retailer and insurer expansion into primary care will surely amp up competition for primary care physicians, as it already has for nurse practitioners. Having its own primary care doctors may make CVS more effective in managing care costs, but the company’s ultimate strategy remains unchanged: use its retail primary care sites to keep MA beneficiaries out of the hospital and other high-cost care settings.

Partnerships with CVS and other retailers and insurers present an opportunity for health systems to increase access points and expand their risk portfolios. But it’s likely that these types of partnerships are time-limited. In a consumer-driven healthcare market, answering the question of “Whose patient is it?” will be increasingly difficult, as both parties look to build long-term loyalty with consumers. 

Walmart partners with Epic for its health technology platform

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Walmart to Deploy Epic EHR Platform in 4 New Health Centers

This week, retail giant Walmart announced a partnership with Epic, the country’s most widely-used electronic health record (EHR) system, as the technology platform to support its health and wellness businesses. Epic will first be installed in four Walmart Health Center clinics slated to open in Florida early next year.

The company currently operates 20 health centers in Georgia, Arkansas and the Chicago area, offering an expanded range of services including comprehensive primary care, behavioral health, dental, hearing and vision care, as well as labs and other diagnostics. Skeptics have noted that Walmart has fallen behind in its ambitious plans to broadly roll out the expanded clinics, the first of which opened in an Atlanta exurb in 2019.

The partnership with Epic, which is used by more than 2,000 hospitals nationwide, signals that Walmart is serious about expanding its role as a healthcare provider—and sees opportunity in being able to share information and connect with health systems and doctors’ offices.

However, the vision of a “unified health record across care settings, geographies and multiple sources of health data” outlined by Walmart’s EVP of health and wellness may be more difficult to achieve than expected, if the experience of health systems, who have been stymied by upgrades and version mismatches in their quest for a unified EHR, is any indication.

Welcome, Walmart, to the wonderful world of EHRs—if you thought healthcare was complicated, just wait until you begin your first Epic install!

Primary Care Faces Existential Threat Over Healthcare Workforce Woes

40% of primary care clinicians worry that the field won’t exist in five years as many in the healthcare workforce experience burnout and plan to leave the field.

 Clinician burnout, lay-offs, and other healthcare workforce challenges coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic are creating issues for primary care, according to a new survey.

About 40 percent of over 700 primary care clinicians recently surveyed by the Larry A. Green Center, Primary Care Collaborative (PCC), and 3rd Conversation worry that primary care won’t exist in five years’ time. Meanwhile, about a fifth say they expect to leave primary care within the next three years.

“Primary care is the front door to the healthcare system for most Americans, and the door is coming off its hinges,” Christine Bechtel, co-founder of 3rd Conversation, a community of patients and clinicians, said in a press release. “The fact that 40 [percent] of clinicians are worried about the future of primary care is of deep concern, and it’s time for new public policies that value primary care for the common good that it is.”

The threat to primary care comes as practices ramp up vaccination efforts. The survey found that more than half of respondents (52 percent) report receiving enough or more than enough vaccines for their patients, and 31 percent are partnering with local organizations or government to prioritize people for vaccination.

Stress levels at primary care practices are also decreasing compared to the height of the pandemic, according to survey results. However, over one in three, or 36 percent, of respondents say they are experiencing hardships, such as feeling constantly lethargic, having trouble finding joy in anything, and/or struggling to maintain clear thinking.

Clinician fatigue could spell trouble for the primary care workforce and the field itself, researchers indicated.

“The administration has now recognized the key role primary care is able to play in reaching vaccination goals,” Rebecca Etz, PhD, co-director of The Larry A. Green Center, said in the release. “While the pressure is now on primary care to convert the most vaccine-hesitant, little has been done to support primary care to date. Policymakers need to bear witness to the quiet heroism of primary care – a workforce that suffered five times more COVID-related deaths than any other medical discipline.”

Many primary care clinicians are hoping the federal government steps in to change policy and bolster primary care and the healthcare workforce. The government can start with how primary care is paid, respondents agreed.

About 46 percent of clinicians responding to the survey said policy should change how primary care is financed so that the field is not in direct competition with specialty care. The same percentage of clinicians also said policy to change how primary care is paid by shifting reimbursement from fee-for-service.

Over half of clinicians (56 percent) also agreed that policy should protect primary care as a common good and make it available to all regardless of ability to pay.

Alternative payment models helped providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, research from healthcare improvement company Premier, Inc. showed. Their study found that organizations in alternative payment models were more likely to leverage care management, remote patient monitoring, and population health data during the pandemic compared to organizations that relied on fee-for-service revenue.

“Many of the practices, especially in primary care, have been extremely cash strapped and have been struggling for many years,” Sanjay Doddamani, MD, told RevCycleIntelligence last year.

This has been a big moment for us to act in accelerating our performance-based incentive payments to our primary care doctors. We moved up our schedule of payments so that they could at least have some continued flow of funds,” added the chief physician executive and COO at Southwestern Health Resources, a clinically integrated network based in Texas.

Value-based contracting could be the key to primary care’s existence in the future, that is, if practices get on board with alternative payment models. A majority of respondents to the latest Value-Based Care Assessment from Insights said over 75 percent of their organization’s revenue is from fee-for-service contracts. This was especially true for respondents working in physician practices, of which 64 percent relied almost entirely on fee-for-service payments.

Humana quietly funded 40 Iora primary care clinics

New doctor's office for people on Medicare opens in Lawrenceville | News |  gwinnettdailypost.com

Health insurer Humana quietly funded 40 of Iora Health’s 47 primary care clinics, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission registration statement obtained by Business Insider.

The filing also showed the Humana-funded clinics exclusively served Humana members until July 2020.

Humana CEO Bruce Broussard told Business Insider earlier this year that the company had begun investing in other startup healthcare companies to see which would succeed. He also said the payer sees better outcomes and lower costs among members who go to clinics focused on providing care to older populations.

Iora Health serves 38,000 patients in eight states, according to the article.

Dollar General: Rural America’s new health hub?

Dollar Stores and food deserts: The latest struggle between Main Street and  corporate America - CBS News

Dollar General hired its first CMO and plans to become a destination for affordable healthcare offerings.  

The retail giant will bring an increased assortment of medical, dental and health aids to its shelves as part of its first major jump into the healthcare industry, according to a July 7 news release.

Three things to know:

  1. In the United States, 75 percent of the population lives within five miles of one of the chain’s 17,400 stores. The chain recognizes that it’s postured to deliver care to rural communities that are traditionally underserved in the healthcare ecosystem, the release said.
  2. “At Dollar General, we are always looking for new ways to serve, and our customers have told us that they would like to see increased access to affordable healthcare products and services in their communities,” said Todd Vasos, Dollar General CEO. “Our goal is to build and enhance affordable healthcare offerings for our customers, especially in the rural communities we serve.”
  3. The chain selected Albert Wu, MD, as its first CMO and vice president. Dr. Wu will strengthen relationships with healthcare service providers to build a network for its customers. In his previous position, Dr. Wu worked at McKinsey, where he oversaw the care model for 250,000 rural patients and drove $2-5 billion in revenue.

One Medical buying Medicare-focused Iora in $2.1B deal

Announcing Iora | One Medical

Dive Brief:

  • Google-backed One Medical is acquiring Medicare-focused primary healthcare chain Iora Health for $2.1 billion in an all-stock trade deal, the companies announced Monday.
  • The buy will give One Medical presence in 28 markets, covering about 40% of the U.S. population and is expected to generate annual revenue at $350 million by 2025. The deal will add about $700 billion in total addressable market, according to an investor presentation.
  • Under the terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the late third quarter or fourth quarter of this year, Iora stockholders will own about 27% of the combined company. One person from Iora will join One Medical’s board and Iora co-founder and CEO Rushika Fernandopulle will become One Medical’s chief innovation officer.

Dive Insight:

The acquisition aligns two key players in part of the value-based care movement that eschews traditional payer-provider arrangements in favor of a concierge membership model. Iora’s concentration in the Medicare population and related participation in CMS’ direct contracting model could be key reasons for coming under One Medical’s sights.

Jefferies analysts said they viewed the transaction as positive, particularly considering both companies’ tech and data capabilities. “Given tech orientation and emphasis on outcomes, we expect substantial derivative value from combining data and developing better treatment programs with superior outcomes across [longitudinal] care. We see this as a clear clinical and applied advantage,” they wrote.

Both companies base their business on value-based models, which some in the industry worry have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic as cash-strapped providers avoid the risk of models not based on fee-for-service. The Biden administration’s director at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation said recently the movement is at “a critical juncture” and that more mandatory models are likely forthcoming.

One Medical has faced challenges as of late, after a first quarter that saw losses double what was expected and a controversy over COVID-19 vaccine distribution that sparked a congressional investigation. The company, however, has forged ahead in deals, including a new partnership with Baylor Scott & White.

And on the Q1 call with investors, executives highlighted a membership increase of 31% year over year.

One Medical, founded in 2007, lead the pack of recent healthcare IPOs, going public in January 2020.

The company touts its direct-to-consumer model buts also contracts directly with employers and partners with several health systems. CFO Bjorn Thaler told Healthcare Dive at the time of the IPO its pitch to investors focused on highlighting a differentiated model.

“[W]e provide the member with a very, very valuable service. They don’t have to wait 29 days to get care. They can get care oftentimes in an instant, digitally,” he said.

Boston-based Iora, which was founded in 2011, has raised nearly $350 million over seven funding rounds, according to Crunchbase. It has contracts with major payers including UnitedHealthcare, Cigna and Humana.

The deal extends One Medical into full-risk Medicare reimbursement. Iora began the direct contracting model in April across all its markets. The program ties reimbursement to spending and quality for all Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries across a geographic region.

About 60% of Iora’s members are in the fast-growing Medicare Advantage program, which has now reached about 40% of the Medicare population.

Iora had expected revenue this year to reach nearly $300 million and as of the first quarter had 38,000 members, compared to nearly 600,000 members at One Medical, according to the investor presentation.

One Medical stock was trending slightly down in early morning trading Monday.

Could physician “income inequality” hold back the medical group?

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Physicians' income inequality | British Columbia Medical Journal

We spoke this week with a medical group president looking to deploy a more consistent consumer experience across his health system’s physician practices, beginning with primary care.

The discussion quickly turned to two large primary care practices, acquired several years ago, whose doctors are extremely resistant to change. “These guys have built a fee-for-service model that has been extremely lucrative,” the executive shared. “It was a battle getting them on centralized scheduling a few years ago, and now they’re pushing back against telemedicine.”

With ancillary income included, many of these “entrepreneurial” primary care doctors are making over $700K annually, while the rest of the system’s full-time primary care physicians average around $250K.

The situation raises several questions. Standardized access and consistent experience are foundational to consumer strategy; in the words of one CEO, if our system’s name is on the door, any of our care sites should feel like they are part of the same system, from the patient’s perspective.

But how can we get physicians on board with “systemization” if they think it puts their income at risk? Should the system guarantee income to “keep them whole”, and for how long? And is it possible to create consensus across a group of doctors with a three-fold disparity in incomeand widely divergent interests? While there are no easy answers, putting patients and consumers first must be the guiding goal of the system.

Some Face Dire Consequences for Delaying Care During Pandemic

Mammogram

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been warning of the dangers of postponed health care services. In January, the American Cancer Society, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and 73 other organizations, including many major health care systems, issued a statement stressing the urgency of preventive care. “We urge people across the country to talk with their health care provider to resume regular primary care checkups, recommended cancer screening, and evidence-based cancer treatment (PDF) to lessen the negative impact the pandemic is having on identifying and treating people with cancer,” the groups said.

Essential Coverage

That was sound advice not everyone could follow, as ProPublica’s Duaa Eldeib reported last week in a tragic story about Teresa Ruvalcaba. The 48-year-old single mother of three worked for 22 years at a candy factory on Chicago’s West Side. During the pandemic, disaster struck. “For more than six months, the 48-year-old factory worker had tried to ignore the pain and inflammation in her chest. She was afraid of visiting a doctor during the pandemic, afraid of missing work, afraid of losing her job, her home, her ability to take care of her three children,” Eldeib reported.

“Even though her chest felt as if it was on fire, she kept working. She didn’t want to get COVID-19 at a doctor’s office or the emergency room, and she was so busy she didn’t have much time to think about her symptoms,” Eldeib wrote.

Ruvalcaba’s pandemic fears were typical of patients across the nation, surveys revealed. A 2020 CHCF poll of 2,249 California adults revealed that even when people wanted to see a doctor for an urgent health problem, one-third did not receive care. Nearly half of those surveyed didn’t receive care for their nonurgent health problems.

Nationally, more than one in three people delayed or skipped care because they were worried about exposure to Covid-19, or because their doctor limited services, according to an Urban Institute analysis of a September 2020 survey.

The toll of this disruption in care — the forgone cancer screening, the chest pain that isn’t reported — will devastate some patients and families. Ruvalcaba had to face a diagnosis with a terrible prognosis, inflammatory breast cancer. “If she would have come six months earlier, it could have been just surgery, chemo and done,” Ruvalcaba’s doctor told Eldeib. “Now she’s incurable.”

Doctors expect the delayed care “could cause worsening health conditions, delayed diagnoses and earlier deaths,” Ana Ibarra reported in CalMatters.

“Unfortunately, we know we’re going to see some tragedies related to the delays,” Wiley Fowler, an oncologist at Dignity Health in Sacramento, told Ibarra.

Consequences of Delayed Care

Public health messages early in the pandemic urged people to avoid public places, including doctor’s offices. In April, as Hayley Smith noted in a Los Angeles Times story, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services “both published guidelines recommending the postponement of elective and nonurgent procedures, including ‘low-risk cancer’ screenings, amid the first wave of the pandemic.”

Patients and doctors listened. Appointments were canceled. “Nonurgent” procedures encompassing a wide array of treatments and operations, including cancer surgeries, were delayed.

Preventive cancer screenings dropped 94% over the first four months of 2020, Eldeib reported. The National Cancer Institute expects to see 10,000 preventable deaths over the next decade because of pandemic-related delays in diagnosis and treatment of breast and colorectal cancer. Screenings for these cancers, which account for about one in six cancer deaths, are routine features of preventive care.

I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.

—Molly Codner, a Southern Californian who received an abnormal Pap smear last summer

In California, cancer deaths have remained roughly the same as prepandemic rates, but that stability is not expected to last. Based on the National Cancer Institute data, Ibarra calculates that an additional 1,200 Californians will die from breast and colon cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimate is conservative “because it only accounts for a six-month delay in care, and people are postponing care longer than that,” Ibarra reported.

Nationally, death rates from cancer are expected to increase in a year or two. Slow-growing cancers will remain treatable despite a delayed diagnosis, Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, told Eldeib. Yet for conditions like Ruvalcaba’s inflammatory breast cancer, delayed care can be disastrous.

Women, People of Color Disproportionately Affected

For women across Southern California, appointments have been delayed, exams canceled, and screenings postponed during the pandemic, Smith reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Some are voluntarily opting out for fear of encountering the virus,” Smith wrote, “while others have had their appointments canceled by health care providers rerouting resources to COVID-19 patients.”

Before Pap smears became part of routine American health care, cervical cancer was one of the deadliest cancers for women. Today, as many as 93% of cervical cancer cases are preventable, according to the CDC, and screenings are a crucial component of preventive care. Yet during the first phase of California’s stay-at-home orders, cervical cancer screenings dropped 80% among the 1.5 million women in Kaiser Permanente’s regional network, Smith wrote.

The effects of the pandemic shutdown extended beyond delayed Pap smears. Women who spoke to Smith said that “mammograms, fertility treatments and even pain prevention procedures have been waylaid by the pandemic.”

Sometimes, obstacles other than the pandemic are continuing to interfere with access to care. One woman had an appointment delayed and then lost her job and her health insurance, Smith reported.

“Molly Codner, 30, has needed a checkup ever since she received an abnormal Pap smear last summer,” Smith wrote, “but like many Southern Californians, the trauma of the last year still weighs heavily on her mind: Nearly a dozen people she knows have had COVID-19.” Codner told Smith that “I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.”

People who face disparities in treatment and care are most likely to be hard hit by pandemic delays. That includes Black people, who were already more likely to die from cancer than any other racial group. Cancer also is the leading cause of death among Latinx people. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for Latinx women. Overall, more Americans die of heart disease.

Black adults are more likely than White or Latinx adults to delay or forgo care, according to researchers from the Urban Institute.

Telehealth Solved Access Issues for Some, Not All

Telehealth was a boon for patients during the pandemic year. Yet, as Ibarra notes, “there’s only so much that doctors and nurses can do through a screen.” Dental visits, mammograms, and annual wellness checks were also put on hold by the pandemic.

Unequal access is another challenge for telehealth. The benefits of the telehealth boom were not shared equally, according to a statewide survey conducted last month by the University of Southern California and the California Emerging Technology Fund.

Latinx, Asian, and Black respondents did not use telehealth as often as White respondents. USC researchers attribute these differences to “disparities in income, education and access to any kind of health care.”

Researchers at the Urban Institute report similar findings: “Black and Latinx adults were more likely than White adults to report having wanted a telehealth visit but not receiving one since the pandemic began, and that difficulties getting a telehealth visit were also more common among adults who were in poorer health or had chronic health conditions.”

After controlling for socioeconomic factors and health status, patients with limited English were half as likely to use telehealth compared to fluent English-speaking patients, the Urban Institute said. “Much work remains to ensure all patients have equitable access to remote care during and after the pandemic,” the researchers wrote.

Whether telehealth is conducted by video or phone may be crucial to ensuring access to care. A study of telehealth use at Federally Qualified Health Centers in California in 2020 found that “more primary care visits among health centers in the study occurred via audio-only visits (49%) than in-person (48%) or via video (3%). Audio-only visits comprised more than 90% of all telemedicine visits.”

“For many Californians with low incomes, the ability to connect with a doctor or their care team by phone or video is much more than a convenience,” Chris Perrone, director of CHCF’s Improving Access team, explained on The CHCF Blog. “It’s really the difference between canceling a visit because the barriers are too great or getting the timely care that they or their child needs.”

Pandemic Health Effects Will Outlast COVID-19

Public health efforts might need to focus on two goals at the same time as the US recovers from the pandemic: increasing vaccine uptake to keep COVID-19 in check and proactively managing the fallout from delayed care.

“As we focus on recovery, we have to ensure that we get vaccinated,” Efrain Talamantes, a primary care physician in East Los Angeles, told Ibarra. “But also that we have a concerted effort to manage the chronic diseases that haven’t received the attention required to avoid complications.”